Explained: How the new expanded transitional kindergarten program offers parents more choice — and more quandaries

Westlake Elementary School TK/kinder teacher Chrisa Burr.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“You’re not alone in figuring this out”: Leaders say they understand the challenges parents now face in choosing early education in Santa Cruz County. Lookout put together a guide for parents on navigating the new choice-full landscape. 

Preschool, transitional kindergarten and family care center. If you have young kids, these are just a few of the options now available.

Transitional K? That’s California’s new expanded transitional kindergarten program. Starting this fall, the state has expanded eligibility for transitional kindergarten to younger 4-year-olds — a move Santa Cruz County administrators support but are also working furiously to achieve by the upcoming school year.

While school administrators are scrambling to fill staff positions and meet standards for transitional kindergarten classrooms, families are also trying to figure out what their kids are eligible for, what the deadlines are and, simply, what they think is best for their kids.

“It can feel overwhelming even to professionals like myself and my colleagues who work in this area,” said David Brody, executive director of First 5 Santa Cruz County. “So, we can only imagine how it might feel to many of you hardworking parents who have jobs and responsibilities.”

He was speaking during a virtual town hall Tuesday, when he and other local education officials, including County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah, offered families an introduction to all the options for prekindergarten care. Among those options is the state’s expanding transitional kindergarten program — previously available only to kids who turned 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 — which will start including younger 4-year-olds in two-to-three-month increments starting this fall. By the school year 2025-26, all 4-year-olds will be eligible for TK.

“We want you to know you’re not alone in figuring this out,” he added. “We are here now and in the future to help you make the best possible decisions for your kids and your family in the coming school year.”

Lookout put together some of the most important information from the town hall, including the available options, how to enroll and how to know when children are eligible for transitional kindergarten.

What are the available options?

Families’ options depend on their child’s age. For families with a 3-year-old child, they could decide to send their child to a preschool, a Head Start program or to a family child care home (child care in a home setting).
Families with a 4-year-old child who will turn 5 during the school year could be eligible for transitional kindergarten in addition to preschool, Head Start program or a family child care home.

Some families could choose to send their child to a combination; for example, they could send their child to a transitional kindergarten in the morning and a preschool or child care home in the afternoon.

How do I sign up for preschool and/or transitional kindergarten?

To enroll children for preschool, visit the provider’s office or the preschool site itself. If a family is requesting reduced or no-cost preschool care, be sure to contact the program directly to complete an application.

Public schools, community agencies, private programs and family child care homes all run preschool programs in Santa Cruz County, and each is uniquely run.

Key resources and links provided during the town hall 

School district websites & TK enrollment information: https://bit.ly/School-Districts-TK-Distritos-Escolares

Child Development Resource Center: 831-466-5820 or https://cdrc4info.org/

Preschool programs don’t restrict students from attending if they live in other districts, according to Melanie Sluggett, Live Oak School District child development director.

“If you want to attend the Live Oak preschools and you’re from Watsonville, or Scotts Valley or Soquel, you can come to enroll for Live Oak preschools,” she said. “It’s not based on where you live, and that’s true of all preschools in the county.”

It’s also true for Head Start, according to Eréndira Guerrero, director of child and family development programs at Encompass Community Services. She manages the Head Start program, which offers early care and education services to low-income families with children ages 3 to 5.

Generally, transitional kindergartens are run by public schools; however, several Santa Cruz County private schools are also running TK programs, according to Sita Moon, coordinator at the Child Development Resource Center.

She added that while school is over for the academic year and enrollment for transitional kindergarten has already begun, it’s important to get in touch with school sites about your interest.

“I still feel like it’s a very site-specific thing,” she said. “You really want to investigate a little bit because different school sites may offer different options.”

To enroll a child in a transitional kindergarten program — which will be located in the district of residence of the family — enroll at the school office or main district office. The best way to get in touch is to visit the website of the school or school district, go directly to the office or call the office by phone.

Moon said each school could have different hours, could have after-school care or before-school care offered by the school, or some might have privately run after-school options. In addition, as new families continue to enroll in TK and class sizes fluctuate, the options at each school could change.

Families can find out which school district they reside in by clicking here.

A child pumps out hand sanitizer in a kindergarten classroom.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

What is the expanded transitional kindergarten program?

As part of the state’s plan to improve access to early care and childhood education to all families, this year the state is beginning to expand its transitional kindergarten program.

Where TK was previously only available to kids that turned age 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, over the next several years, starting this fall, schools will open eligibility to younger 4-year-olds in two-to-three-month increments. By the 2025-26 school year, all 4-year-olds will be eligible for transitional kindergarten.

For the first phase this fall, eligibility will expand to include 4-year-olds who turn 5 by Feb. 2 — but it also depends on the district.

First, families might be wondering: If my child turns age 5 in March 2023, that’s not fair they can’t be included just because their birthdate fell a month after the state’s deadline.

Sabbah understands that it does feel unfair for some parents.

“You might be off by one month, one year and miss out on that window,” he said. “The reason why the state has created this as a phase is because they didn’t want to open up the window completely for everybody.”

And the reason behind that is that the state knows that it’s going to take a lot of work for schools to be able to hire the staff, prepare the physical spaces, collect the materials in order to meet the needs of this younger population on their school sites.

Still, considering that, some school districts are opening the window slightly so that they have enough kids to fill up a TK or TK/kindergarten combination class. For example, seven districts in Santa Cruz County will be following that initial eligibility phase of allowing students turning age 5 between Sept. 2 and Feb. 2, 2023, three other districts will be offering eligibility to a later date.

Mountain Elementary will accept students turning age 5 between Sept. 2 and April 2, 2023, while San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley will accept students turning age 5 between Sept. 2 and June 2, 2023.

Want additional information and help choosing?

First 5 Santa Cruz County executive director Brody said considering that so many factors are at play and plans for transitional kindergarten still being prepared, it’s important that families stay in contact with the Child Development Resource Center and with local school district officials.

The center offers free assistance to families looking for information on all prekindergarten options.

“We would just really encourage everybody to not make an assumption about what’s available or about what they may or may not be eligible for until they reach out to [the Child Development Resource Center] and or their local school district and really do some investigation that’s specific to your family,” he said.

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