Quick Take:

California’s transitional kindergarten program is expanding to include all 4-year-olds by 2025-26. Santa Cruz County school officials say this is going to be a challenge, but that it will have an overall positive impact on families and schools. 

The Santa Cruz County Office of Education and the county’s 10 school districts are planning, with varying degrees of preparedness, to accommodate what is essentially a new grade level at their school sites: transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds.

Sometimes called a “Young Fives” program, TK bridges the gap between preschool and elementary school, providing an extra year to build kindergarten readiness. As a recent U.S. News & World Report story put it: If your child is too advanced for preschool but not quite ready for kindergarten — perhaps because of a fall birthday — transitional kindergarten could be a solution.

Some local school districts, such as the Pajaro Valley Unified School District or Santa Cruz City Schools, have had a TK program for years, while others, like the Mountain Elementary School District, will be developing a program for the first time. Prior to the new legislation, TK included only 4-year-olds who turned 5 by Sept. 1.

What will be new for all the school districts is the expansion of transitional kindergarten to include younger students after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill in July 2021 making TK available to all 4-year -olds by 2025-26. Starting this fall, schools will gradually include younger students for the next several years.

The expansion is going to have wide-ranging impacts on schools and is creating several major challenges. Among them:

  • Coordinating adequate facilities.
  • Making the funding equation work.
  • Hiring qualified early childhood educators.
  • Creating the right curriculum for the younger population.

School officials say while there are still a lot of unknowns, they are ready to make this opportunity available to families who opt in to it.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for students to get a higher quality educational experience and to really kind of jumpstart their education in California,” said County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah. “I think implementing it effectively is something we’re absolutely committed to, and to overcome the challenges.”

On average, about 3,000 students enter kindergarten each year in Santa Cruz County.

The County Office of Education is expecting that number would eventually qualify for TK once all 4-year-olds are eligible in 2025-26. At that time, county schools would need roughly 125 additional classrooms to accommodate the county’s 3,000 or so TK-eligible students.

‘Facilities is a big question’

Sabbah said the first question every district is asking is how to prepare facilities for these additional students. While some school districts say they will have the classroom space, others say they will have to improvise.

“It’s not only a facility, it’s not just a classroom,” Sabbah said. “You can’t take a fifth grade classroom and just say, ‘Here is your [TK] classroom.’”

In the Mountain Elementary School District, where transitional kindergarten will be an entirely new grade, Superintendent Megan Tresham says space is at a premium. The single-school district currently serves about 140 students between kindergarten and sixth grade.

“We’re having to do some shuffling around of some of our different programs, and where they meet and when they meet, so we can accommodate this TK class that’s coming on board,” she said. “We’re doing the mapping of all that right now and putting our plans together. But generally, we’re really excited about it.”

She said about 30 families have expressed interest in TK, and she expects she’ll end up with about 20 TK students by the time fall comes around. For at least the first year, she’s planning to use a classroom that will double as a TK class in the morning and an after-school program in the afternoon.

Luckily, she said, the classroom does meet the requirements for this younger population such as having close access to a bathroom with small toilets.

Tresham said her district would like to build a separate classroom that would be used only for a TK class in the future, but that depends on available funding. When the state budget is finalized in June, school districts will know how much they could be getting.

“A lot of unanswered questions,” she said. “But I fully expect to know more in the next month or so.”

Basic-aid schools don’t get funding for new TK students

At Westlake Elementary School, part of the Santa Cruz City Schools district, Principal Clyde Curley says he’s looking forward to the expansion despite all the challenges: guessing enrollment numbers, having adequate funding and developing a curriculum that will accommodate young students.

But this isn’t a new challenge for Curley and his Westlake school community.

In the past eight years of having transitional kindergarten students, Westlake had one year where there was one full TK class as opposed to a combination TK-kindergarten class. There are currently 12 TK students in a combination class at Westlake.

Westlake Elementary School principal Clyde Curley
Westlake Elementary School principal Clyde Curley. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

With more students eligible this fall, Curley said he’s expecting a full TK class again this year, or about 23 TK students. So far, 12 are enrolled for the fall.

As a school in a basic-aid district — a district funded mostly by property taxes as opposed to receiving funding based on the number of students — Westlake won’t be getting extra funding for the extra students its has enrolled.

“We don’t get additional funding from the state to just have a TK teacher. So that limits us to fill every spot that we have in our classrooms,” Curley said. “So we would ideally love to have a straight TK class. But unless we’re able to really fill it or close to fill, it will most likely have a TK-kindergarten combination class.”

He said while Westlake has had the combination class all but one of these years, it’s not ideal, because the students who are already 5 at the start of the school year are at vastly different levels than students who will turn 5 by February or later.

Still, Curley said giving families the option to send their children to school will be great for kids in the long run.

“Most preschool pre-kindergarten programs can be quite expensive,” he said. “So including that in the public education arena will benefit the students greatly by providing them with a really solid start to their educational pathway.”

Declining enrollment could provide relief

For the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, classroom space isn’t expected to be a problem, according to Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez. The COE is projecting enrollment in the county’s K-12 schools will drop by 10-20% in the next five years.

Rodriguez said the district has about 130 kids in transitional kindergarten currently, and doesn’t have an estimate for fall enrollment numbers yet. But considering that the district, like many across the county and the state, is seeing declining enrollment, having classroom space isn’t the main concern.

That would be staffing. Districts have already been struggling with a nationwide shortage of teachers. Now they are seeking to hire teachers who have the right credentials and other staff to help maintain the student-teacher ratio.

Westlake Elementary School TK-kindergarten teacher Chrisa Burr.
Westlake Elementary School TK-kindergarten teacher Chrisa Burr. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Initially, TK classrooms will require a 12-to-1 ratio, and then it drops to 10-to-1 in 2025-26. So for 24 students in a classroom, schools will have to provide another teacher or adult. In addition, the TK teacher will have to be a certified teacher and also have early childhood education experience.

Rodriguez said her district is still figuring out the staffing needs, developing a diverse teaching staff and providing professional development for principals who will now have younger students.

Since they’ve already been offering transitional kindergarten, this won’t be entirely new for all schools in the district. However, because they’ve had low TK enrollment, TK has been offered at only a handful of school sites.

Rodriguez said she hopes enrollment will be high enough in 2025-26, when all 4-year-olds are eligible, to have at least one TK class in each PVUSD school.

School officials don’t know exactly what TK classes will look like at that time as enrollment continues declining and parents weigh the decision of sending their children to other early child care providers or private preschools.

Sabbah said preschool programs and school districts will likely have a bit of a competition for these families, with a significant shift expected toward the public school system and out of preschools.

The COE estimates that there are about 88 preschool centers in the county. Attendance at those has fluctuated significantly because of the pandemic, but it’s estimated that the total capacity at the centers is 3,387 children.

“TK is going to be free. Unless families are qualifying for some subsidized program, their program is going to cost,” said Sabbah. “And so for many families, that’s not really going to be much of a choice — they’re going to choose the free option, right?”

COE officials recognize the potential impact on the early child care industry, which could lose clients to public schools and have to cut services. Sabbah said his office is looking into creating career opportunities for those educators to receive training in order to get their teaching credentials.

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...