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As California's Transitional Kindergarten Enrollment Grows, Parents Must Make Big Choices

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Jennifer Currier prepares her two children, Kaia, 5, and Kane, 2, for summer camp at their home in Alameda on June 10 before her husband, Steve, takes the kids to camp and she leaves for work. On other days, a nanny takes the kids to school after both parents go to work. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California is in the middle of an ambitious plan to offer transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds by the 2025–26 school year. KQED and LAist are teaming up on a series examining the challenges the state faces as it tries to add a new grade to its sprawling public school system.


hen the end-of-day bell buzzes in Mrs. Nobriga’s transitional kindergarten class at Holbrook Language Academy in Concord, her students excitedly cluster on the carpet, waiting to be picked up.

One student, Galilea, runs to her family and hugs her dad, Victor Buendia, and younger brother, Fabian.

For Buendia, the simple act of picking up his daughter from school requires some maneuvering.


As an emergency medical technician, he used to work a day shift and wouldn’t get home until late in the evening. But he switched his schedule to start at 4 a.m., so now he’s off by noon — giving him enough to get home, change, load his 2-year-old son Fabian in the car and pick up Galilea when school ends at 1:35 p.m. His wife, Karina Buendia, handles the morning drop-off before heading to her 9-to-5 job as a nurse.

“We talked, and we were like, ‘You know what? It’s going to be an early shift,’ but I know I’m going to be out early. I’m going to be able to come and pick her up,” Victor Buendia said. “We want her to know that we’re there for her.”

Victor and Karina Buendia pick up their daughter Galilea, 5, after a transitional kindergarten class at Holbrook Language Academy in Concord on May 20. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Buendias are among the thousands of parents who have opted into California’s ambitious $2.7 billion expansion of transitional kindergarten. In 2021, lawmakers voted to gradually phase in the grade on public school campuses over a five-year period until it covers all 4-year-olds in the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom has made universal TK a hallmark of his administration.

Enrollment has significantly increased to 150,000 students this past school year, but the state still has a long way to go to reach its goal of serving more than 300,000 by the fall of 2025.

The program’s growth will largely depend on parents buying into the program, but the transition to this new grade creates logistical challenges that force working parents like the Buendias to make difficult choices.

KQED interviewed several families about their experiences with TK and many said drop-off and pick-up arrangements are a major hurdle. Others said their neighborhood school didn’t offer TK, and programs at other schools were difficult to travel to. Some parents said they missed key deadlines because they didn’t know their child was eligible.

“This is a major expansion over the course of five years — it’s historic,” said Hanna Melnick, senior policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute. To accommodate a new grade, schools need additional classroom space, supplies, teachers and outreach to families. The state has provided funding, but progress has varied by school district and individual school.

“It’s very exciting that California has prioritized early learning,” Melnick said. “It’s going to be messy no matter where you go to expand this quickly.”

The Learning Policy Institute surveyed parents who didn’t enroll their kids in TK and found that the most common reasons were that the school did not offer before- or after-school care or that the available school was not close to home.

Some families have opted out of public school altogether or are waiting longer to enroll their kids, like when they are 6 years old. But there is still a gap of missing students, Melnick said, who are not enrolled in public school, private school or homeschooling.

Victor and Karina Buendia, along with their son Fabian, 3, pick up their daughter Galilea, 5, after a transitional kindergarten class at Holbrook Language Academy in Concord on May 20. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We knew coming from the pandemic that enrollment across the country has fallen in preschool everywhere,” she said. “We simply don’t really know what’s happening with a lot of families.”

Like many parents, the Buendias worried about sending their 4-year-old to an elementary school and wondered if she would adapt to a structured school environment.

“I was kind of skeptical,” Victor Buendia said. “At first, I was like, I don’t know how I feel about leaving my kid for long hours.”

Before starting TK, Galilea stayed home with her grandparents, which had its benefits, but she also spent a lot of time isolated from other kids during the pandemic. When she did see other kids, like at the park, she didn’t know how to interact with them.

Now that Galilea will be off to kindergarten next fall, her parents are thrilled with the progress she’s made socially and academically and said enrolling her in TK was the right choice.

“In our case, [TK] was a great help,” Karina Buendia said. “Galilea turned 1 during COVID-19. She was struggling with socialization, so for us, she is getting the skills she needs.”

Getting into school and getting there

Alameda mom, Jennifer Currier, said when she first heard about transitional kindergarten, signing up her daughter Kaia seemed like a no-brainer. She heard great things about Alameda’s public schools and enrolling could help them save the $2,000 monthly tuition they were paying for private preschool.

But, their neighborhood school did not offer TK, so they had to consider other schools in the district, some of which would require driving through “horrendous traffic.”

Jennifer and Steve Currier leave the house with their two children, Kaia, 5, and Kane, 2, in Alameda on June 10, before Steve takes the kids to camp and Jennifer leaves for work. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Only one Alameda school offering TK was a feasible distance away for Currier’s daughter, so landing a spot was crucial. She compared registration to securing tickets to the Coachella music festival.

Last school year, 81% of school districts, county offices of education and charter schools reported offering TK at all of their elementary schools. In addition, 82% reported providing full-day classes, and sometimes alongside part-day classes, according to the state Department of Education.

The Alameda Unified School District has taken a deliberately slow approach to implementing universal TK, said Tanya Harris, director for elementary education.

The district has nine elementary schools but has added TK incrementally since the statewide expansion started. This fall, six of the district’s schools will offer TK before expanding to all or most of the schools by fall 2025.

Demand has been high, with classes filling up to capacity each year, Harris said, but the district has not wanted to rush to add more.

“It has been nice to have the slower rollout to be really thoughtful and really find the right folks to be in the classroom,” Harris said.

Once Currier managed to enroll her daughter, the next step was figuring out transportation. Currier, an eye doctor, and her husband, an air traffic controller, need to be out of the house well before the kids start school.

Jennifer and Steve Currier prepare their two children, Kaia, 5, and Kane, 2, for summer camp at their home in Alameda on June 10. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

So they hired a morning nanny who ferries their daughter to school and their 3-year-old son to preschool. In the afternoon, their daughter stays on for after-school care. Even with paying for the morning nanny at $35 per hour and after-school care at $525 per month, the Curriers are saving about $800 a month on childcare.

Despite the difficulties, Currier said she feels grateful.

“It was a really good fit for [Kaia] to be in TK because she was able to encounter lots of different people from different parts of Alameda,” she said. But she knows others may not be able to make the same choice.

“The hours [for TK] can be challenging for a lot of people,” she said. “My husband and I have talked about this a lot, how do people make it work?”

State education officials say they’re encouraged by increased enrollment to TK across all racial and ethnic groups because one of their goals is to provide equitable access to the state’s youngest learners.

“There’s that overall hope that more and more families find access to high-quality, universal pre-K and that TK is one of those really strong options that’s available to them in a really good way in their community,” said Sarah Neville-Morgan, deputy superintendent at the CDE. A mark of quality, she added, includes having children in the same neighborhood going to the same TK classroom, regardless of their family’s income level.

‘It’s hard to compete with free’

For some parents, the high cost of child care drove them to choose TK.

“It’s hard to compete with free,” said Alexis Ford, who lives in Concord and enrolled her son Mikey in TK last fall at the same school as Galilea.

Alexis Ford works at a Head Start child care center, which serves low-income families, but couldn’t enroll her son there because her family’s earnings were above the eligibility requirement for the federal preschool program. Before TK, Mikey was cared for by his grandparents and went to a private preschool part-time because full-time care was too expensive.

Mikey, 5, (right) works on an exercise with another student in a transitional kindergarten class at Holbrook Language Academy in Concord on May 20. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At first, Ford said she was hesitant about making the transition to TK.

“If we could have afforded to send Mikey for full-time at St. Michael’s, we probably would have kept them there until kindergarten,” she said. “Preschool centers and family child care homes can offer a smaller group, more individualized care, for longer.”

Mikey was diagnosed with autism when he was three and now receives specialized services at school to help him with speech and other skills. So far, he’s done well in a regular classroom.

“We are pretty satisfied,” Ford said. “The plan is he will be here through eighth grade.”

For some parents, the shifting eligibility deadlines for TK have created confusion. For this current school year, kids had to turn 4 by April 2. For the class entering this fall, the cut-off is June 2. And for the 2025-26 school year, the cut-off date will move for good to Sept. 1.

Christina Martinez of Concord said she feels like her daughter, Skye Ruiz, “fell through the TK cracks.”

Skye was too young to enroll in TK last fall. This year, she’s eligible for kindergarten because she will be 5 by Sept. 1, but her mother is unsure if she’s ready. Skye has been attending a half-day program that is mostly play-based. It’s great, Martinez said but hasn’t provided her daughter much academic preparation for kindergarten.

Martinez decided to enroll Skye in a private TK program at St. Mary’s, a Catholic School in Walnut Creek.

Martinez said she hopes the extra year will help Skye ease into school.

“I have to pay whatever I have to pay to make sure my kids get an acceptable education at this point,” she said.

The whole process of deciding on which school and which grade to start with was “very stressful,” Martinez said.

“I did not anticipate that at all,” she said. “These are the things you do not think about when you’re going to have a baby. Like, wow, I’m going to have to think about your whole academic career when you’re 4.”

Now that her family has decided, she’s looking forward to her daughter starting school.

“I’m just hopefully optimistic,” Martinez said, “that it’s the right place for my daughter.”

Daisy Nguyen contributed reporting for this story.

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