San Diego’s 4-year-olds to get transitional kindergarten ahead of state rollout

State leaders have approved a rollout of universal transitional kindergarten over the next few years, but San Diego Unified will jump ahead and offer it to all 4-year-olds this fall.

Meanwhile at least five San Diego County districts do not offer transitional kindergarten and say they don’t plan to change.

San Diego Unified officials said they will offer at least 2,800 transitional kindergarten spots to families this fall. Any child in the district who turns 4 by Sept. 1 will be eligible for the program, which is being offered in 54 schools, district officials said.

“Regardless of where you live, regardless of where you work, we want you to come to school,” said Stephanie Ceminsky, director of early learning for the district.

The state promised in July it will begin funding universal transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds in public schools by 2025. Children will be eligible if they turn 4 by Sept. 1.

But not all 4-year-olds will be able to get access to the early childhood education program; it may depend on which school district they attend.

At least five small, elementary-only school districts in some of the wealthiest parts of San Diego County — Cardiff, Del Mar, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach — do not provide any transitional kindergarten, even though state school officials say they have to.

Leaders of those districts have said they will not offer it unless the state gives them the money to do so.

They are called “basic aid” districts, meaning they get most of their money from local property taxes rather than from the state, unlike most public school districts, which get much of their funding from state per-pupil funds.

The five basic aid districts are North County, coastal districts, ranging in size from 547 students in Rancho Santa Fe to 4,900 students in Encinitas.

Most of those districts receive thousands more dollars in general revenue per student than the average California district — which some parent advocates have argued is all the more reason they should offer transitional kindergarten, like most other school districts do.

District leaders have said they can’t afford to offer transitional kindergarten without compromising other programs they find more important, such as smaller class sizes and science, technology, engineering and math programs at Del Mar, for example.

When reached by email recently all five superintendents of the basic aid districts said they had no plans to change or update their stance on transitional kindergarten.

The California Department of Education, which helps carry out state education laws, has said that state law requires all elementary school districts and charter schools to offer transitional kindergarten to age-eligible children.

Transitional kindergarten is an extra, optional grade that precedes kindergarten.

Child advocates say such early education opportunities are crucial to child development, bringing with them such benefits as higher academic achievement and a greater likelihood of graduating high school for students — and some much-needed child care for working parents.

Not only does transitional kindergarten teach academics, it also teaches young children how to act in school, said Valencia Park Elementary Principal Lori Moore, whose school helped pilot an expanded transitional kindergarten program in the San Diego Unified district.

In transitional kindergarten, kids learn the basics of school behavior, such as how to stand in line and how to keep your hands to yourself, she said.

“If you go into a kindergarten room, you can tell who has never been in a school right away,” Moore said.

But early childhood education is expensive and inaccessible for many families.

The state offers free preschool or child care only to families who meet narrow income requirements. Families who don’t qualify have to pay for preschool, which on average costs more than $15,000 a year in San Diego County, according to the YMCA Childcare Resource Service.

Transitional kindergarten, on the other hand, has until now been available to some children depending on when they were born.

Currently, only children throughout California who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 are guaranteed transitional kindergarten at their public school, a rule that many education advocates have said is arbitrary.

A state budget trailer bill passed in July will gradually expand state-funded transitional kindergarten to all children who turn 4 by Sept. 1.

It’s unlikely the five districts that do not offer transitional kindergarten will change their minds, because the new state budget trailer bill mirrors the same state law language that the five districts have used to justify not offering transitional kindergarten.

The budget trailer bill says school districts must provide transitional kindergarten to age-eligible children as a condition of receiving state funding — a condition that the basic aid districts have claimed does not apply to them.

San Diego Unified piloted its full-day, transitional kindergarten program last school year, opening it to 4-year-olds regardless of birthdate.

The program combines a transitional kindergarten teacher and a preschool teacher in the same classroom. The idea was a preschool teacher would bring expertise specific to developing younger children, such as using play-based learning, while a transitional kindergarten teacher would bring expertise on curriculum and educational standards.

Because it was a pilot program, it had limited space — it served about 1,000 4-year-olds in classrooms only at Title I schools, which serve low-income families.

There wasn’t enough room to meet demand; about 2,500 families originally applied and 480 were placed on a wait list, Ceminsky said.

This school year, Ceminsky said, the district can serve at least 2,800 transitional kindergarteners.

San Diego Unified does not know yet how many 4-year-olds there are in the district, she said, but the plan is to serve those students at 54 elementary schools where it offered the pilot program, then expand it across the district in the 2022-2023 school year.

Families living in San Diego Unified who want to enroll in transitional kindergarten can email [email protected] or apply directly at school sites starting Aug. 16, Ceminsky said.

If there is enough interest and school sites fill up, San Diego Unified will expand to accommodate every family, Ceminsky said.