Brookline Kindergarten Teachers Criticize Curriculum Shifts

Kindergarten teachers in Brookline are criticizing recent changes in the classroom, saying they’re making kids increasingly anxious and losing joy in learning, and may be working against the district’s equity goals.

“It is now common to hear their little voices announce to us, ‘I don’t know how to read,’ ‘I hate reading,’ ‘I hate school,’ ‘I am not good at anything.’ This is our greatest concern,” reads a letter signed by a group of 19 current and two former teachers from seven of Brookline’s eight elementary schools. They plan to present the letter to the school committee Thursday night.

Teachers and parents say the shift has been gradual over the last several years, moving the classroom from largely open, play-based learning time with more free choice for students to a more rigid, academic and data-driven focus.

As a result, teachers said 5- and 6-year-old students were being asked to sit for longer periods of instruction, rather than moving around and engaging with learning.

When Nicole Chasse started teaching kindergarten in Brookline 10 years ago, she said kids had two 30-minute recess periods, and the classroom time was a mix of games and social-emotional work tied to the curriculum.

“When you’re using that mode where we’re really kind of tuned into what they’re passionate about and they’re active and they’re able to move around … and they’re solving problems with each other and their ‘re having to communicate with each other, it’s a beautiful thing,” Chasse said.

Although Chasse said her principal at the Coolidge Corner School supports her in creating projects and incorporating play, it can be difficult to squeeze into the day. She said the schedule is more rigid, with only one recess and set blocks of learning time — similar to later grades.

“If you’ve got a morning meeting, and then you’ve got phonics and then you’ve got Spanish, you may have kids sitting on the rug for up to 45 minutes to an hour,” Chasse says. “That’s just not a good use of their time and not best practice.”

District leaders are also setting higher goals for the reading level they expect all kindergarten students to reach by the end of the school year.

“I think that we want to really undo the premise that any … large group of students should be expected to do something specific by date ‘x.’ [It’s] very, very unfair and disrespectful of the complexity of a human being of a little child,” said Brookline Educators Union president Jessica Wender-Shubow, who has not seen the letter or been involved in its creation.

The teachers who wrote the letter said the new kindergarten focus is also reducing equity.

“It is not uniquely tailored,” the letter said. “Learners who need to be challenged or need modifications to access the curriculum are not considered with block scheduling and whole group methods of teaching.”

“We were very much aware that if children didn’t read fluently by third grade that the chances of catching up would be almost insurmountable.”

Brookline school official Vicki Milstein

School Superintendent Andrew Bott was not available for an interview prior to publication of this story. Brookline’s principal of early education for the last 21 years, Vicki Milstein, said the changes have been gradually implemented over the last eight to 10 years, as the district became more concerned about achievement gaps between students from low- and high-income households, and between white students and black or Latino students.

“We were very much aware that if children didn’t read fluently by third grade that the chances of catching up would be almost insurmountable,” said Milstein, who is also a member of a statewide working group on high-quality kindergarten. In order to try to ensure all children would be competent readers by third grade, Milstein said the district took “some narrower paths” in kindergarten, focusing on benchmark assessments and separate learning blocks for subjects.

Brookline is not alone. With a lot of research about the importance of high-quality early education, many districts are aiming to infuse more academic structure in kindergarten in the hopes of reducing the so-called fade-out effect, when the gains experienced by children who attend preschool — over those who did not — seem to fade out by the time they reach third grade. (Other districts, however, like Boston, are shifting the other way, to a play-based curriculum.)

From Milstein’s perspective, every district of the country should focus more on intentional, play-based learning in kindergarten through second grade.

“I worry that in an effort to ensure high achievement for all children that we are making choices that look like they’re more serious,” said Milstein, pointing to schools’ increased focus on testing data. “Play doesn’t look serious, but I can assure you that play is very serious work in the lives of children.”

For Milstein, the key is to design a curriculum based on a child’s developmental stage and needs. She believes Brookline can do that.

“I think we all want to look at ways to create joyful learning in early childhood that is respectful of their developmental age and stage and inspires children to become deeply involved in subjects about which they want to know more,” she said.

Some parents said they’ve been raising concerns to the district about the rigidity in kindergarten, especially cutting back recess time.

Ben Kelley, co-president of the Brookline Parents Organization, said parents have said they’re seeing more behavioral issues with students, and kids are not as excited about coming to school.

“It seems very unfair to our kids. It seems unfair to our teachers, too,” Kelley said. “They’re experts. They’ve been doing this for a long time and they know what it takes to inspire kids.”

In their letter, the kindergarten teachers also said they wanted more opportunities to work with the district on setting curriculum and benchmarks.

“[W]e ask you to imagine Brookline Kindergarten classrooms where teachers are trusted to use their judgment about what’s best for each class,” the letter said. “Imagine a future where love of learning, not test-based performance, returns to the hearts of our children’s very first educational experience.”

It’s an ask that comes as the teachers union has been clashing with school committee members over contract negotiations. The current contract took two years to negotiate, and is set to expire in August.

Transitional kindergarten in California — without state help

In summary

The state mandates transitional kindergarten, but isn’t paying the tab for a small portion of wealthy school districts. Some are balking.

Lea este artículo en español.

In a major shift for early education, California is expanding its transitional kindergarten program to eventually include all 4-year-olds. While most districts will receive additional dollars for the expansion, 15% will not — and are facing tough budget choices as they comply with the new fall mandate.

Some of those districts — among the most affluent in California — say they are stretching existing budgets to create classrooms, moving money around to hire new teachers and trying to figure out how to fund renovations that include tiny toilets and preschool playground equipment.

Others say they have no plans to add transitional kindergarten, despite parent pleas, unless they get state funding.

Reed Union School District in the Bay Area town of Tiburon is one of the districts that won’t be getting state money for transitional kindergarten. Reed Union hasn’t offered the program in years but is planning to add it in the fall.

“For districts without any additional funding coming in it is a big financial commitment,” said Superintendent Kimberly McGrath. “It is fantastic for kids in our community to have an additional year of exceptional learning. We are going to embrace it and see it as working toward universal preschool.”

Reed Union is one of the 15% of districts statewide   known as basic aid districts.

Most California districts are funded through a state funding formula allocated on a per-student basis. But basic aid districts serve areas where local property taxes generate more money than the districts would receive if they took state funding.

Last year, the state committed more than $1 billion in the current budget to begin phasing in the expansion of transitional kindergarten, eventually including all 4-year-olds by 2025-26. None of that money will go to basic aid districts.

“I can see why basic aid districts might make an argument that the state has changed the rules substantially,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “But I don’t know how you’d address it. They can’t have it both ways.” 

Transitional kindergarten has been available to 4-year-olds with birthdays between September and December since 2012. It was created when kindergarten was limited to those who turned 5 by September. Previously, 4-year-olds could enroll in kindergarten in the fall if they turned 5 by December.

Last year’s decision to expand the program to all 4-year-olds means 500,000 children will be eligible by the end of the rollout. Starting this August, children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Feb. 2 will be able to enroll. Each school year the enrollment window will widen to include more students until 2025-26, when all 4-year-olds will be eligible.

Some districts don’t offer programs

Basic aid districts tend to be smaller districts, mostly coastal or rural with clusters in coastal San Diego County and the Bay Area. In all, there are about 150 basic aid districts among California’s approximately 1,000 districts, according to data from the California Department of Education. 

At least a dozen basic aid districts have not offered transitional kindergarten in recent years and some of them say they still won’t add the new grade despite the mandate.

“We do not plan to offer it because we are not receiving any funding from the state,” said Chris Delehanty, assistant superintendent of business services for Del Mar Elementary School District. “To add it would mean reducing or eliminating something we are already offering, increasing class size or reducing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) offerings for our students or professional learning for our teachers.”

The district has eight elementary schools and serves nearly 4,000 students. Delehanty said if the district enrolled as many 4-year-olds as it does kindergartners each year, about 500, the district would have to add around 25 classrooms and hire twice that number of teachers and aides to meet state-required teacher-student ratios, which are generally smaller than those for older students. The estimated price: $4 million to roll out the program to all 4-year-olds. 

“We do not plan to offer it because we are not receiving any funding from the state.”

Chris Delehanty, assistant superintendent of business services for Del Mar Elementary School District

Transitional kindergarten, like kindergarten, is optional and experts say not all children who are eligible will enroll. Families may choose to stay in their subsidized or private preschool or child care or keep their kids at home. 

There are four other small coastal districts in San Diego County that are basic aid districts and also do not offer the program, including Solana Beach, Encinitas Union, Rancho Santa Fe and Cardiff school districts.

“We have all been advocating and lobbying for this mandate to be funded for all children,” said Andrée Grey, superintendent of Encinitas Union School District. “We recognize the value and appreciate the intent behind universal transitional kindergarten. However, it is critical that community-funded districts be able to access the funding that has been set aside, and there is not currently a mechanism for us to do that.”

But Stipek, the Stanford professor, said schools often have to reassess spending based on enrollment, policies, shifting focus and existing and new programs.

“Anytime you have to do something new, you have to do a redistribution of resources,” Stipek said. With transitional kindergarten, known as TK, she said, “your kids are going to learn more, do better, develop the kind of social skills that they need. So the benefits of having kids in TK will compensate for any reductions you have to make in other kinds of services.”

It’s unclear what happens if districts ignore the mandate. The California Department of Education refused to say whether it can enforce the mandate or how many schools are not providing transitional kindergarten.

Instead, it issued the following statement: “Basic aid districts should be offering TK if they offer kindergarten. In terms of enforcement, the CDE is continuing to work with basic aid districts that are not offering TK on issues” including what districts have to do to receive or keep their funding. 

Several basic aid districts in San Mateo and Marin counties said the mandate was the driving force behind their decision to create new transitional kindergarten. Those districts include Mill Valley, Reed Union, Hillsborough City Elementary, Menlo Park City Elementary and Miller Creek school districts. They all plan to offer transitional kindergarten programs in the fall. 

Even so, the financing is challenging. They need the state to provide money for the rollout in the coming years, several superintendents said.

Becky Rosales, superintendent of Miller Creek School District, noted in an email  that her district, in San Rafael, receives just enough in property taxes to be classified as basic aid. “I am hopeful that there will be some consideration at the state level of a remedy to support districts like ours.” 

“If funds were provided it would have an enormous impact.”

Kimberly McGrath, superintendent of Reed Union School District in tiburon

At Reed Union in Tiburon, the district, which has just three schools, will add two transitional kindergarten classrooms to serve up to 40 children, McGrath said.

The price tag: around $300,000 for the first year. 

“If funds were provided it would have an enormous impact,” McGrath said. “Even if just some up-front grant funds because while there are some ongoing costs there are a lot of one-time costs – equipment material purchases, planning time, playground equipment, facilities.”

In the midst of Kern County’s oil fields, where McKittrick Elementary School District offers transitional kindergarten when it is needed, said Barry Koerner, who is both superintendent and principal. The district has only one school and 86 students.

This year the school had its first 4-year-old in transitional kindergarten. Koerner hired an aide for the nine-student combo transitional kindergarten and kindergarten classroom to accommodate the one child.

“If I didn’t have resources built up we would have to cut,” he said. “We are rarely the ones they consider when making these big changes. We are doing everything we can to fight to keep our heads above water.”

Transitional kindergarten has been a pillar of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s agenda to eventually offer universal preschool to all children in California. The move is intended to benefit children eligible for subsidies who are waitlisted by fully enrolled-preschools or child care programs and those whose families can’t afford hefty tuition for private early childhood programs.

Legislators supported the plan, citing studies that say children do better in school if they attend preschool, and that preparation can help close the achievement gap.

“The evidence for the benefits of preschool, transitional kindergarten is strong enough now that we want all kids to have access to it — and that’s not the case right now,” said Stipek, who is part of a state task force to help the Commision on Teacher Credentialing create guidelines for teachers in early childhood. 

There are other reasons supporters push for transitional kindergarten.

Moving 4-year-olds into public schools sooner opens up seats in private and state subsidized preschool programs, child care centers and family-based child care homes for younger children. It also helps increase the overall number of students  in public schools as many California districts continue to see a drastic drop in enrollment. 

“The evidence for the benefits of preschool, transitional kindergarten is strong enough now that we want all kids to have access to it — and that’s not the case right now.”

Deborah Stipek, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education

In San Diego County, parent Lynette Jaiswal has been carefully tracking the discussion in both Del Mar and Solana Beach, as she owns homes in both places. She lives in Solana Beach but would have moved to her home in Del Mar if the district offered the program.

Last year, when it was time to find a transitional kindergarten program for her son, she said she was told to apply to an outside district. But that didn’t work out for her family because it was too far away. 

“I’m not the only parent struggling to find a place for my transitional kindergarten child,” she said. “I did find placement for my child but it’s very frustrating when you have a school district that can do something but they refuse to.”

Solana Beach School District officials did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

While many basic aid communities are considered affluent, there are also families in need of low-cost child care and preschool, said Jaiswal, who is a real estate agent. She said within the district there are hundreds of low-income housing units for families that typically rely on public schools. Also, many middle-class families have experienced COVID hardships and could benefit from a free public option for 4-year-olds.

Basic aid school districts, education organizations and some state legislators are advocating for the state to provide dedicated funding for basic aid districts.

Santa Barbara Democratic Sen. Monique Limón, who served on a school board when transitional kindergarten was first created, wrote a letter signed by 22 other legislators asking the Newsom administration to help the districts.

“We want TK to be successful,” she said. “To be successful you have to have the staff, you have to have the classroom and I’m not sure it should come at the expense of increasing class sizes for everyone else or cutting co-curricular programs and cutting curricular programs.”

If the state can’t offer funding, then districts may need more time to implement the expansion, she said.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Monique Limón

State Senate, District 19 (Santa Barbara)

Monique Limón

State Senate, District 19 (Santa Barbara)

How she voted 2021-2022

Liberal Conservative

District 19 Demographics

Race/Ethnicity

Latino 38%

White 47%

Asian 5%

Black 5%

Multi-race 4%

Voter Registration

Dem 37%

GOP 35%

No party 19%

Campaign Contributions

Sen. Monique Limón has taken at least $832,000 from the Labor sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents 25% of her total campaign contributions.