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What to Expect When Enrolling Your Child in Transitional Kindergarten

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Students listen to teacher Gina Viggiano in a transitional kindergarten class at Holbrook Language Academy in Concord on May 20, 2024. (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.


cross California, parents of young kids are deciding whether to enroll their children in transitional kindergarten as it increasingly becomes available for 4-year-olds. Here are some frequently asked questions about this new grade in California’s public school system.

What is transitional kindergarten?

California introduced transitional kindergarten in 2012 to serve a group of children who narrowly missed the cutoff date to qualify for kindergarten. They were commonly known as “fall babies” because their 5th birthday between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 made them too young for kindergarten but old enough for TK. The state describes TK as the first of a two-year kindergarten program to prepare children for the rigors of elementary school. In 2021, the state expanded eligibility for all 4-year-olds as part of a $2.7 billion, five-year plan.


How do I know if my kid is eligible for TK?

Since 2022, the eligibility dates have been moving gradually to accommodate more 4-year-olds. For fall 2024, kids who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and June 2 are eligible. Starting in the fall of 2025, all kids who turn 4 by the beginning of the school year will be guaranteed a spot in TK. Already, nearly 50% of school districts, charter schools and county offices of education say they’ll offer early admittance this fall for students who will have their 4th birthday by Sept. 1. It’s worth checking your local education agency to see if your child may be eligible sooner than the statewide schedule.

A woman teacher leans over and smiles at two young students in a classroom
Teacher Erika Vargas checks in on students during playtime during a bilingual transitional kindergarten class at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland on May 17. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

What do kids learn in TK?

TK is intended to be a play-based program, where children learn through play and interaction with each other. Schools are expected to align with the state’s framework, the Preschool/Transitional Kindergarten Learning Foundations, when they set the curriculum for TK. The document lays out the knowledge and skills that 3- to 5-year-old children can acquire if given the benefits of a high-quality early education.

An upcoming edition will highlight the essential skills needed to achieve learning goals, such as focusing attention, understanding and using vocabulary, planning, problem-solving, and collaborating with others, according to Peter Mangione, an early childhood expert at the educational research and service organization WestEd and a lead contributor to the Learning Foundations.

Erika Vargas, a transitional kindergarten teacher at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland, said a year in TK gives children a “grace period” to learn the routines and expectations of being in school and develop the skills necessary for kindergarten.

“Our goal is to expose them to literature, to develop that love of books, reading, writing and drawing,” she said. “Socially, we want them to learn how to make friends and resolve conflicts.”

Kids also start on basic skills such as learning the alphabet and numbers, but the focus is more on social and emotional development, said Tanya Harris, director of elementary education for the Alameda Unified School District.

How is TK different from other types of preschool?

It will be the only free pre-K option for all 4-year-olds in California. Two other publicly funded preschool programs — Head Start and the California State Preschool Program — are for 3- and 4-year-old children who qualify based on their family’s low incomes. A private preschool is a business or nonprofit entity that must comply with local zoning and health and safety codes. It sets its own curriculum.

Gina Viggiano teaches a transitional kindergarten class at Holbrook Language Academy in Concord on May 20, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Why does California want to make TK universal?

Gov. Gavin Newsom said the goal of making TK universal is so that “every 4-year-old in California from here on out can start their schooling on the right track, setting them up for success further down the road.”

Experts also say that TK brings students into the K–12 system sooner to acclimate to school, get used to daily schedules and feel comfortable in a classroom.

Does my child have to attend TK?

No. TK and kindergarten are considered optional grades in California. Children are not mandated to enroll in school until first grade.

When should I start researching transitional kindergarten options for my child?

When your child is 3 years old, it’s a good idea to find out what school district you can enroll in and what TK programs they offer. Many school districts start enrollment in January for the fall and may give priority to school placement for those who enroll early. Also, schools often hold tours and information sessions in the spring. But don’t expect your local school district to reach out to you with a reminder to sign up for your child. Many parents have told us they learned about TK from other parents and have researched options and deadlines.

A teacher wearing a facemask high-fives a young student at a classroom table
Bernadette Pilar Zermeño, a multilingual early childhood educator, sits with transitional kindergarten students during snack time at the International Community School in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

What happens if I wait to enroll my child until right before school starts?

Children can enroll in school at any time, but that may limit your options for which school or program your child can enroll in. Some schools may fill up, which means you will have to look at other options.

How can I assess if transitional kindergarten is right for my child?

Since TK may not cover all the child care hours parents need to fit their work schedule, parents must consider if they can make it work logistically and if their child can handle switching from school to an aftercare arrangement.

Some families prefer to keep their child in a program that can provide full-day care, said Kym Johnson, CEO of Bananas, an agency that refers parents to child care options in Alameda County.

On the other hand, some parents want their kids to enter a school environment. “Four-year-olds are at different stages and levels of independence,” Johnson said. “We believe families know what’s best for their kids.”

What should I look for in a TK program?

A high-quality TK classroom ought to have ample space for play-based activities, said Hanna Melnick, senior policy adviser for the Learning Policy Institute based in Palo Alto.

“You want to see literacy, math and science activities in the classroom that are thoughtfully planned,” Melnick said. “And you want to make sure that the curriculum and assessments are taking into account the needs of the whole child — their social and emotional needs, their physical development, as well as what’s more considered traditional academic development in math and reading.”

Dale Farran, a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University, said parents need to look for learning opportunities in the classroom that go beyond basic instruction.

“They need to be up, they need to be exploring, they need to be interacting with each other and with the teacher, and they need to have an environment that facilitates all of that happening,” Farran said.

What should I ask the school about how TK is run?

  • What kind of outdoor time do children get, and what do those spaces offer?
  • How do you incorporate play into the curriculum?
  • Are there bathrooms attached to the classroom?
  • If not: Is there a bathroom inside the classroom, where are the closest bathrooms and how do the children get there?
  • Where will they eat their lunch and snacks? Will it be in the classroom or the cafeteria?
  • Do you have any special additional programs for TK students, e.g., dual immersion?
  • What kind of after-school care do you offer?
  • Can I take a tour?
  • Can I talk to the principal and teacher?
Three young students hold hands outside as they walk away from the camera towards a play gym structure during recess
Transitional kindergarten students play outside during recess at the International Community School in Oakland on May 17, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

What are common challenges parents encounter?

Many parents find arranging pick-up and drop-off can be a huge challenge, depending on their work schedules. The other big challenge is finding before- and after-school care since TK schedules vary in length, anywhere from three to five hours a day. The state has provided funding for schools to add after-school care and enrichment classes in art, STEM or sports, but availability varies from school to school. Some programs charge fees, while others are free.

Anything else I should consider?

Napping and toilet training. Some 4-year-olds still nap in the afternoon, which is not part of most TK programs. If that’s a problem, then perhaps you could consider how your child could still nap after school or phase out napping.

Another issue some parents worry about is how prepared their child is to use the bathroom on their own. Marji D. Calbeck, director of elementary support for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, recommends that parents talk with teachers at the start of the school year about any concerns and even pack their kids an extra change of clothes in case they have an accident. Potty accidents happen in school, she said, noting it’s something educators should be equipped to deal with.

What if my child isn’t ready for TK? What are my other options?

California offers several publicly funded early childhood education programs to help meet families’ diverse child care needs.

Under the state’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) initiative, income-eligible families can enroll in federal Head Start programs, the California State Preschool Program or subsidized early learning programs such as home-based “family child care” or private preschools.

CSPP offers part-day and full-day options for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Click here to find out whether you meet the income requirement to enroll your child in CSPP.

Where can I find more information?

The state has set up a comprehensive website with information about TK. To find a program in your area, start with your local school district. You can look up school districts here. You can also explore parent forums or groups on social media. Parents can also search for child care that meets their specific needs via MyChildCarePlan.org, a search tool supported by California’s network of resource and referral agencies.

If there’s a question you have that we didn’t include, feel free to reach out to reporters’ Daisy Nguyen or Elly Yu and we’ll do our best to find answers.

Corrections (issued June 14): School districts began changing eligibility dates for TK to accommodate more 4-year-olds in 2022 —  not 2021, as previously stated in this story.  And for fall 2024, kids who turn 5 (not 4, as we originally said) between Sept. 2 and June 2 will be eligible.

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