Fetching a classmate a Band-Aid, putting crayons away and gardening are just some of the activities on a typical day of transitional kindergarten.
Transitional kindergarten (TK) teachers say students are gaining important life skills in addition to academics. Although several local schools already offer TK, state legislation is taking effect this fall that requires all districts to add free programs for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2, 2022 and Feb. 2, 2023.
During the following school year, schools must offer TK to children who turn 5 between September 2023 and April 2023. The law requires that districts offer free education to all 4-year-olds once it is fully implemented during the 2025-26 school year.
Woodside Elementary School TK teacher Sonja Virgallito said the timing of the expansion is perfect since many students were kept home from preschool during the pandemic.
"It's a gentler start," she said, noting that there is a lot of important development for children between the ages of 4 and 5. "Some kids really do struggle in kindergarten from the lack of experience. Depending on the kid, if they start their school career not having confidence, that can really affect their whole school career."
The average cost of private preschool in San Mateo County is about $15,300 a year, according to 2018 data from the Population Reference Bureau. A free option for 4-year-olds could help level the playing field for families who can't afford to send their kids to preschool, early childhood education leaders say.
Families will still have the option not to enroll their children. Each district must submit a plan to the state by June.
Next school year, class size ratios will be one teacher or teaching assistant per 12 students; classes can have up to 24 children with one teacher and an aide. The ratio will shrink down to 1:10 by the 2025-26 school year.
TK, which is considered the first year of a two-year kindergarten experience, first came about in California in 2012.
What each district currently offers and what's to come
The Woodside, Portola Valley and Ravenswood school districts already offer TK programs this school year for children who turned 5 by Dec. 2.
Ravenswood has 46 students enrolled in full-day classes between Costaño and Belle Haven elementary schools.
Los Altos and Mountain View offer full-day programs for students born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, and Palo Alto Unified has half-day TK for kids born during that same date range. All three districts plan to expand to include students born through Feb. 2 next school year.
The Las Lomitas and Menlo Park City school districts don't currently offer transitional kindergarten programs.
The Menlo Park district, which runs three elementary schools in Menlo Park and Atherton, will offer half-day slots for those turning 5 before Feb. 2 next school year, according to staff. The district estimates about 250 to 300 students will enroll.
Las Lomitas, which runs an elementary school in Atherton, expects to have two to three TK classrooms, administrators said during a Jan. 12 governing board meeting.
"I think that TK is a fantastic use of district resources," said Superintendent Beth Polito during the meeting. "It levels a lot of playing fields."
The Woodside and Portola Valley districts each have one class of about a dozen students enrolled in their half-day TK programs.
Portola Valley will immediately adopt the 2025-26 requirements from the state and offer TK to all children who turn 4 before Sept. 1. Officials are prepared to offer up to three TK classes.
The Woodside district's board voted in early February to start offering TK to children who turn 5 before Feb. 2 next school year. The board is also leaning toward a half-day option for students.
The Palo Alto Unified School District has offered TK to those turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 for years now, but until recently wasn't certain whether it would be expanding its program next school year.
Because Palo Alto schools are funded largely with local property tax dollars, rather than by receiving money from the state for each student, Assistant Superintendent Anne Brown said the district had been trying to figure out how the new state TK law would apply. Ultimately, district officials came to the conclusion that they would need to expand their offerings next fall.
Palo Alto intends to offer TK to students who turn 5 before Feb. 2, 2023, during the 2022-23 school year, like other districts. According to Brown, the expansion is likely to only pencil out to one additional classroom next fall on top of the three that the district currently has. Over time though, the rollout will be more substantial as the eligible age range expands.
For the time being, Palo Alto intends to keep TK as a half-day program, with three hours and 10 minutes of daily instruction.
In the Los Altos School District, TK is currently offered to those born Sept. 2 to Dec. 2 and will expand through Feb. 2 in the fall. The program offers full-day instruction with the same hours as kindergarten.
Like Palo Alto, Los Altos Assistant Superintendent Sandra McGongagle predicts that next year's expansion will mean one additional classroom on top of the two that already exist.
"Everybody's trying to figure out enrollment right now, but I think we're going to be at three unless we get a surprise bump and make it to four," McGonagle said.
Mountain View Whisman School District Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur called enrollment the "million dollar question" for a lot of districts. Her district also expects to have four TK classes in the fall, up from three this school year.
The uncertainty around just how many families may sign up is in part because TK is optional. Parents can stick with their existing preschool or daycare, or keep their children at home. Parents surveyed by the Menlo Park district were most likely to not want to enroll their kids in TK, because they work full time and need a full-day child care option.
Brown estimated that roughly 50% of eligible families are currently participating in Palo Alto's TK program.
A pricey addition for school districts
Districts say it's pricey to add a new grade level and there won't be much extra funding coming from the state for the initiative.
The majority of local districts are "community funded," or basic aid, meaning they receive most of their revenue from local sources, including property taxes, parcel taxes and donations. Little of their funding depends on enrollment, so they won't receive more funding per student.
The Ravenswood district, which currently relies on enrollment-based funding from the state, expects to become a basic aid district next school year, and hasn't yet ironed out the potential costs of the additional students and facilities needed for TK, according to Chief Business Officer Will Eger.
The Las Lomitas and Woodside districts also have not finalized their TK budgets for next school year.
It will cost the Menlo Park district a little over $1 million to start a TK program, but will only receive around $100,000 from the state to jumpstart it. The bulk of the cost will go toward paying new staff members (about $733,000). Curriculum, furniture and facilities (at least five portables) make up the rest.
The Portola Valley district expects to spend about $450,000 to hire two teachers, two teaching assistants, develop curriculum and train staff. Facilities and furniture costs are dependent on enrollment and haven't yet been determined.
District administrators said they are "not holding their breaths" that the state will step in with extra TK funding.
Palo Alto Unified expects to receive $190,000 in state funding for the transitional kindergarten expansion, which Brown said will not cover the district's costs, leaving it to pay out of the general fund.
Los Altos is in a similar boat.
"The state is providing some funding, but certainly not adequate funding to fully cover the cost of implementing a TK program," McGonagle said.
Beyond additional staff, McGonagle said that her district also expects to spend money on new curriculum and supplies that are appropriate for the younger students.
Looking at next year, Mountain View Whisman doesn't expect any substantial added cost, because it had already budgeted for an extra TK class this school year that didn't end up being needed, Baur said. In the longer term though, the program, and the expense, will likely grow more substantially.
Administrators, already facing staffing shortages, are concerned about filling TK teacher slots.
By August 2023, TK teachers are required to have completed at least 24 units in early childhood education (ECE).
"I'm not going to lie, given the teacher shortage right now, we have concerns," said Menlo Park district's Assistant Superintendent Jammie Behrendt.
The San Mateo County Office of Education recently applied for a $250,000 state grant to plan for professional development for teachers to fulfill ECE units.
Dayna Chung, co-founder and executive director of the Community Equity Collaborative, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit that was formed in 2017 to help solve educational inequities, said legislators have succeeded in pushing for sizable investments in early care and education.
"I can say we have a long way to go in building the career pathways required to equip a workforce capable of meeting expanded care demands," she said in an email.
Studies show benefits of TK curriculum
Studies have shown that children who attend transitional kindergarten are better prepared for school than other students. TK students enter kindergarten with stronger mathematics and literacy skills and are more engaged in their learning than students who did not attend transitional kindergarten, according to one 2017 study.
"It's getting kids in school and getting them used to routines and being exposed to some academics," Baur said.
In TK, kids will work on tasks like writing their names, counting to 10 and learning their letters, Baur said.
Beyond academics, a big part of kindergarten is building social skills and learning to work with others. Teachers help students learn how to express their thoughts and feelings, McGonagle said.
"(It's) definitely more play-based and developmental, as opposed to academic," Baur said.
There are five areas of focus at Woodside Elementary's TK: fine motor skills like tracing lines and shapes; social and emotional skills; self-regulation; academics; and self-care (toileting, washing hands), according to Virgallito.
The minimum number of daily instructional minutes for TK next school year is 180 minutes, including recess.
Expanding transitional kindergarten is part of an effort to reduce gaps in academic achievement between under-served students and their more advantaged peers. The idea is that by getting kids in classrooms earlier, they will see more equal outcomes later on.
Statewide, the high school graduation rate last year was 86.8%, but that number was lower for socioeconomically disadvantaged students (84.1%), those learning English (72.8%) and kids with disabilities (70.5%).
There are also disparities by race. Over 90% of white students and nearly 95% of Asian students in California graduated high school on time last year, compared with 84.1% of Hispanic students and 80.3% of Black students.
According to Brown, Palo Alto is focusing on making sure that students' backgrounds don't pre-determine their outcome in school. Having kids in classrooms early can only help, she said.
Palo Alto Unified already offers an "extended transitional kindergarten" program that enrolls certain students those who turn 5 after Dec. 2 but before the last day of the school year to take part in TK. To qualify, a student has to either have parents who haven't received a high school diploma, be eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, or be homeless, migrant or in foster care.
The program is intended to give students access to TK whose families may not be able to afford a traditional preschool program, Brown said.
With the new state law expanding TK, all students will ultimately be eligible for transitional kindergarten, regardless of their birthday or family background.
Register for TK
Parents and guardians can register their children for transitional kindergarten for the 2022-23 school year below:
Las Lomitas: when available
Ravenswood: when available