Schools are implementing a statewide movement for Universal Transitional Kindergarten this year, but districts will need to do much more before all of Santa Clara County’s youngest learners can sit in a room. of class.
California is pushing for widespread access to transitional kindergarten (TK) through its universal pre-kindergarten initiative passed in 2021. This grade level will be a stepping stone between kindergarten and kindergarten. The plan sets in motion the gradual enrollment of the state’s youngest students, beginning with those who turn five between Sept. 2, 2022 and Feb. 2, 2023.
The hope is that all students aged 4 and over will be enrolled by the 2025-2026 school year. The challenge will be staffing that extra class, experts said, with teacher shortages already a problem across the education system.
All children should have access to high-quality preschool education, but that requires qualified teachers, said Heidi Emberling, acting program director of FIRST 5, an early childhood nonprofit. Traditional knowledge educators must earn an additional 24 credits in early childhood education, in addition to standard teaching credentials.
“We need 8,000 to 11,000 new TK teachers over the next four years to accommodate every eligible 4-year-old (in the state),” Emberling told San Jose Spotlight. “This is the first year of TK expansion, so we have four years to figure that out.”
The state is working to address staffing shortages by creating funds for teacher residency programs, said Santa Clara County Schools Superintendent and San Jose Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan. Across the county, some school districts are looking for ways to build subsidized housing to attract teachers and are trying to meet that need through bonding measures. Grants are also available to help districts retrofit classrooms to accommodate younger students, with general funding based on enrollment and attendance.
The long-term benefits are clear, Dewan said, adding that attending early childhood programs like TK increases the likelihood that students will graduate from high school on time. Early childhood programs also contribute to language development, social-emotional learning and physical development.
In Santa Clara County, a number of school districts have already implemented this new requirement.
The Santa Clara Unified School District has offered transitional kindergarten since 2012. The school district expanded from eight to 11 TK classrooms this school year, with enrollment growing from 140 to 210 students, Acting Superintendent Gary Waddell said. The district is working to find qualified teachers to continue to increase its number of TK classrooms, he said. These classrooms also require infrastructure upgrades, such as appropriately sized bathrooms and play structures.
“The more we can do in the early years of children’s lives to put them on a positive path and to build a solid foundation, it really pays dividends throughout their educational journey and life beyond,” Waddell told San Jose Spotlight.
Universal TK classrooms have also provided a strong foundation for English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Alum Rock Union School District, Superintendent Hilaria Bauer said. Transitional kindergarten classes have existed in the neighborhood since 2015.
“In 2015, our ELL population was around 70%, many of whom were long-term English learners. Today we are down to about 40% of the ELL population,” Bauer told San Jose Spotlight. “It all starts in TK.”
The district is investing in early education by converting Cesar Chavez Elementary School into an early learning center, which is under construction and expected to open later this year, Bauer said. As primary school parents have expressed concern that their children will have to move to another school, the early learning center aims to ease the demand for childcare and early education among families of the working class of East San Jose.
“We hope to encourage more parents to enroll their 4-year-olds in a high-quality program with a certified preschool teacher,” Bauer said. “It really makes a difference.”
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