Los Angeles Unified expects about 5,000 additional students next school year as it expands its kindergarten transition program to include more 4-year-olds in the first of several planned eligibility window expansions as part of its stronger focus on early childhood education.
LAUSD, unanimously approved by the school board in April 2021, is on track to provide schooling to all 4-year-olds regardless of family income by 2024 as it expands the TK and early transitional kindergarten known as ETK and is currently intended for income eligible 4-year-olds whose birthdays fall in the six months following the TK subsidy period. The district is on a slightly accelerated path compared to the timeline set by the California Department of Education, which plans to achieve the same goal statewide by the 2025-26 school year.
Students who turn 5 between September 2 and February 2 are eligible for TK as the district is expanding the program to students two months younger. There are currently 6,220 students enrolled in TK, up from last year but still below pre-pandemic numbers, according to district data. With the new growth also comes a 1:12 headcount and curriculum updates. As TK shifts, so will ETK.
LAUSD officials see this expansion as a way to narrow the achievement gap among under-resourced students — a problem exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. They also see it as a way to improve enrollment, which continues to plummet. By creating a stronger pathway from preschool to high school in the district, LAUSD, along with the state, aims to build an early academic foundation and ensure a smooth flow of education progress, said Dean Tagawa, executive director of early childhood education.
“We’re ready to take care of the kids,” Tagawa said. “We have highly qualified staff. We create fun learning environments for them.”
Teachers say they’re still waiting to hear what’s to come in terms of curriculum and resource changes as they look to next year, and are hesitantly optimistic about the expansion of the transitional kindergarten. There is some satisfaction that so much attention has been paid to TK lately, but also some uncertainty about what the structure will look like.
For Amy Weisberg, who teaches transitional preschool at Topanga Elementary Charter School and is part of the district’s TK cadre, that means LAUSD provides space and supplies for dramatic play, more guidance for parents, and more standardized teaching materials for teachers.
“I’m hoping there will be material developed or available specifically for TK that isn’t just watered-down kindergarten or small improved kindergarten,” she said. “I hope it’s very specific to the age of 4-year-olds as we get to the end of the rollout.”
Tagawa said LAUSD aims to align early education through third grade programs and teachers and families should expect a whole-child focus, which means looking at how the students interact with their peers and build on social skills as they prepare for kindergarten. He said the district also wants to continue building a foundation for cognition, oral language development and concept development.
“There are many opportunities for adults to interact with children, and there are many opportunities for children to expand the language,” he said, explaining the importance of conversation through questions.
LAUSD also plans to expand its bilingual early childhood education programs with the influx of new students. There are currently 39 classes, but Tagawa hopes the number of classes will grow by 10 or 20 next year as more programs are added at schools that can nurture students at other schools that support the learning of two languages as they continue their academic journey.
Gloria Craine is hesitant yet hopeful that some of the program’s early goals and support may return, as she recalls when the transitional preschool was first introduced to Los Angeles Unified more than a decade ago. She had an assistant in her Ellen Ochoa Learning Center class in Cudahy for five hours a day and focused on emphasizing play and kinesthetic activities among the approximately 23 4-year-olds she taught. In her seventh – and final – year teaching TK, she had a two-hour teaching assistant for 27 students and saw a changing desire for a more academic focus.
“I think what the program is now and what it was when it started are two different things,” she said. Craine is now a second-year teacher at the same school and has seen combination classes take over the TK classes she once taught, resulting in a more kindergarten-oriented structure.
Like Craine, Stephanie Levinson, who teaches a TK/Kindergarten combo class at San Fernando Elementary School, agrees that part of achieving age-appropriate balance is giving TK room to grow on its own. Joint TK and Kindergarten classes currently account for nearly 70% of the TK classes offered in LAUSD. Kindergarten has a greater focus on assessment and specific curriculum compared to TK classes, where much more emphasis is placed on play, making it a bit difficult to find the middle ground, Levinson said.
Levinson said she only remembers one year when transitional kindergarten was taught as a class of its own. She said that combining the two grades means that TK children are essentially placed in a kindergarten curriculum.
“Every year it was, ‘Here’s the program, but we’re going to teach you at the kindergarten level,'” Levinson said. “It’s always been an afterthought, like, ‘Oh, kindergarten does this, and TK, you guys can do this, but you figure it out for yourself.”
Although Tagawa said the expansion of the program and the influx of students will reduce the number of combination classes starting next year, he is not yet sure by how much.
Lourdes Andrade, who teaches early transitional preschool at 186th Street Elementary School in Gardena, shares the same concerns about finding that appropriate balance as eligibility for TK continues to shift to the younger students previously under ETK. range would have fallen. ETK currently includes students turning 5 between December 3 and June 30, but will have shifted to April 3 to September 1 in 2023-24 as TK continues to expand.
As a result, she wonders what ETK will look like in the coming years and how it will work in tandem with TK as it grows. Andrade cited handwriting as an example, noting that working on handwriting can sometimes be frustrating for younger students whose hand muscles are still developing.
“There is a big difference between TK and ETK,” Andrade said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s only a few months of difference between the students, but there’s a lot of difference between what students can do from month to month.”
Tagawa said TK is only part of the overall goal of universal preschool and will partner with ETK, state preschool and other early education programs both in the district and community.
District Board Member Nick Melvoin called this transitional kindergarten expansion a huge step for the district as it aims to both grow and provide more resources to the families it serves.
“Once you start kindergarten or TK with a group of families and with the kid, there’s really a slowness to stay because now you’ve got to know those other families and go to school,” Melvoin said. “And so I think once a lot of these families come in for TK, we’ll capture that across the entire elementary school in a heartbeat.”
As Tagawa looks to next school year, he said the district is working to launch an enrollment campaign to ensure parents are aware of the program. The district will also work to provide professional development services for teachers ensuring they have a solid understanding of the California Preschool Learning Foundations, which provide curriculum counseling for teachers.
The district has just over 900 teachers who meet the qualifications to teach TK, and Tagawa estimates the district will attract another 20 to 25 teachers in the coming years, depending on how enrollment looks. To teach TK, teachers must be licensed and complete 24 early education units or obtain a child development permit by August 2023 if they do not have sufficient classroom experience, which is based on a standard set by each individual district.
LAUSD is also conducting a site survey that will take place next year that will give the district an idea of how many classrooms are available and how many rooms need to be upgraded to accommodate the young students.
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