Home Education Policy What will universal TK mean for California kids?

What will universal TK mean for California kids?

California is making big strides towards offering a free year of public pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds by 2025.

A teacher shares why she loves transitional kindergarten – the joy of learning and the chance for play so often lost in kindergarten nowadays. Host Zaidee Stavely and EdSource reporter Karen D’Souza discuss the hopes and challenges posed by this enormous expansion.

Transcript:

Anne Vasquez :

Welcome to education beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director at EdSource. California’s taking steps to offer universal transitional kindergarten to all four-year-olds, a program that until now has been only for kids born in the fall. TK, as it’s known, is an extra year of time inside the classroom before kindergarten. Teachers say that extra year is important to help prepare kids for kindergarten and to give them more time for learning and socializing through play.

Paula Merrigan:

There are so many ways you can learn and play in TK. And that opportunity does not exist in kindergarten really these days.

Anne Vasquez:

This week on Education Beat, we’ll meet a TK teacher and talk with a reporter about California’s plans for universal transitional kindergarten. What does it mean for young learners? And how will this extra year impact childcare and preschool, an industry that already has been battered by the pandemic? Here is this week’s education beat with host Zaidi Staveley.

Zaidee Stavely:

If you walk into Paula Merrigan’s transitional kindergarten classroom in Castro Valley, you’ll see kids listening to stories, forming letters with Play-Doh or writing them in sand, and finding pictures that start with a certain sound, cutting them out, and gluing them on paper.

Paula Merrigan:

We start on the carpet with our carpet time. We do our calendar. We count. We sing songs. We listen to stories. I love having listening centers in my classroom, which is, if you remember being a child and having a book on a record, and you’d read along to the record or the tape and turn the pages. We do those activities, but then you go and you draw your part. You’re not going to write about what you read because you’re four, but we draw our favorite part from the story.

Zaidee Stavely:

Paula has been teaching for 14 years. She started out in kindergarten and when transitional kindergarten first started up, Paula signed up to teach this new grade of four-year-olds about to turn five. She loves it.

Paula Merrigan:

We could be doing Play-Doh letters. We could be using kinetic sand. I mean, there’s… you want to have things that are really manipulative for them. What they’re doing has a purpose. It’s not just play, which is also great, but there’s expectations with that play. Um, same with math. I may be teaching them numbers, but we’re going to play go fish. And you’re going to ask for that number three, eventually I may cover up the numbers and you have to be able to what we call subitize and see, oh, there’s five hearts on that, so I know that’s five. And you might be playing with a dice game. You might be playing with the Legos so they can learn through that play.

Zaidee Stavely:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidi Staley. This week, transitional kindergarten for all.

Transitional kindergarten or TK started as an extra year of school for children who have fall birthdays and would have qualified for kindergarten before California moved back the cutoff birthdate. Now kids have to turn five by September 1st to enter kindergarten, instead of by December 1st. So those kids who used to qualify for kindergarten can now go to TK. Over the years other parents started asking what about my four-year-old who won’t turn five until after December 2nd? What about the kids who were born in March or May? This year the state passed a law that will expand transitional kindergarten a little at a time, until by fall of 2025, all four-year-olds can go to transitional kindergarten. It’s basically a free year of preschool for all children. And Paula says, that’s a big deal.

Paula Merrigan:

A lot of families don’t have the money for preschool. They’re just right on that cusp. They don’t qualify for headstart. They don’t qualify for state preschool, but they can’t afford to send their child to a private preschool. Public education is free in California. So this gives more families the opportunity to send their children for a preschool program. I’m sure it will help parents who need that time for work. It helps the child get more prepared socially. It’s huge to have that social benefit of going to a TK or a universal pre-K program. Emotionally, it’s better. We won’t have them crying when they go to kindergarten

Zaidee Stavely:

Crying when they go to kindergarten, that’s something Paula watched herself when she was a kindergarten teacher.

Paula Merrigan:

What I don’t think a lot of parents realize is kindergarten is not what they knew as kindergarten. Kindergarten feels more like a first grade now. You no longer just have to write: I like spaghetti because it’s good. I like watermelon because it’s good. You know, not simple little sentences. It’s elaborate sentences, a full paragraph. And I’m like, they’re five. I don’t like seeing kids frustrated. And that was one thing that was hard. When you would see a child, cause you had to give these writing tests three times a year, crying because they didn’t know how to write a sentence at the end of the first trimester, which would be around November. Crying because they’re kindergarten, and they don’t know their letters and they don’t know their sounds. And I’m asking them to write. That was frustrating. And I’m sure kindergarten teachers still experience that. They just don’t know how to do it because they haven’t been trained. They haven’t learned it. Yet we’re expected to test them to see where they’re at.

Zaidee Stavely:

Paula says there was so much pressure in kindergarten to get kindergarteners to a certain place, to know how to write and read, that play just went out the window.

Paula Merrigan:

Our day went from eight to one thirty. And that last half hour of the day, every day, was supposed to be for developmental play. No one ever told me that. And I don’t think most of our kindergarten teachers knew it. So we just more academics, more academics. And every Friday we’d play for 30 minutes of just free play. Then later someone said the whole purpose of that was to have that developmental play every single day. And we’re like, well, we don’t have time. There’s all these standards. We don’t have time for play. Play at recess. There’s just not enough of that in kindergarten. But there is in TK.

Zaidee Stavely:

In TK Paula wants to give children more time to have fun while learning. It’s what she calls the gift of time.

Paula Merrigan:

In TK we have all year to master what we’re working on. So I have the ability to slow down the curriculum and still teach you your name and how to write it. I can teach you how to write your number zero to 10 and not have the 10 be a zero and a one. I can teach you the time to write your letters the right way, uppercase/lowercase. We have all year. Sometimes they’re backwards and developmentally it’s okay. We have the time to play games, to learn the sounds. I mean, there’s just so much more I can teach you because my standards are fewer than kindergarten standards.

Zaidee Stavely:

TK is also a place where kids learn how to solve problems, which is an important skill to have before you get to kindergarten.

Paula Merrigan:

I only have three ipads available and there’s five of you who want to use it, how are we going to solve that problem? You know, there’s only so much Play-Doh. How are we going to solve that problem? You have to take turns. You have to work with your friends in the classroom and develop out a system where we can take a turn. They learn that taking a turn does not mean give it to me now. I want it. That’s not taking a turn. It’s when I’m done with it, you can have it. And I’ll tell you what I’m done with it.

Sometimes they are hearing the word no for the first time. One that will always stick with me as this little family where the boy, he was not used to hearing no. And I would say, no, you’ve got to finish this before you can go do that. Those are the rules. And he fought me all year long. And by the end of the year, the parents wrote me the nicest note and told me I saved their family. Because they just didn’t want to tell him no. They would just let him do whatever because it was easier than the tantrum. And that was getting harder and harder as he got older. And so he learned no, there’s rules. There’s consequences. And so that was probably over 10 years ago, but it still is so special to me. I’ve kept that note.

Zaidee Stavely:

Paula was part of a roundtable EdSource organized a few days ago about universal TK. Karen D’Souza was the moderator. Karen is EdSource’s early education reporter. So I asked her to come talk to me about TK too. Hi, Karen.

Karen D’Souza:

Hi Zaidee. Thanks for having me on.

Zaidee Stavely:

So I know you’ve been covering early ed for a while now and expanding a year of preschool or transitional kindergarten for four year olds has been this big goal of the state of California for a long time. And now it’s coming true. And so what would you say is the goal of this extra year for all four year olds?

Karen D’Souza:

The goal is really ambitious. I mean, as you say, universal preschool has been part of the conversation for many years. And I think the core of that is trying to do something to remedy the achievement gap. California has among the largest achievement gaps in the country and it’s getting bigger and bigger. The pandemic has not helped certainly, and the economic disparities it’s created. Basically you have some kids coming into kindergarten who can already read pretty well. And other kids come into kindergarten who perhaps have never even been read to. So the gap in their skills starts out large and just gets bigger.

Zaidee Stavely:

Right. And so when we talk about achievement gap, I like to think about it as an opportunity gap. So who has had the opportunity to go to preschool or to have these pre-reading skills. And it’s not even just about reading though. Paula was telling us about the issues of just getting ready for learning how to share and listening to rules.

Karen D’Souza:

Absolutely. I think you actually, in some ways we’re really seeing that this year with the pandemic, really all ages of child forgot like how to share and raise their hand. And those are really basic skills that you learn, you know, either in a childcare setting or preschool or even some kind of homeschooling options. But if you don’t have access to that, you have no opportunities to have that growth. So you show up on the first day, perhaps looking developmentally behind, when you’re not. In reality, you simply haven’t had the same opportunity as the kid next to you. And increasing access, universal access is really the thrust of transitional kindergarten.

Zaidee Stavely:

Paula actually spoke to us about what it’s like for kindergarten teachers when some of the kids come without having that extra preparation.

Paula Merrigan:

It’s harder for the kindergarten teachers to get up and running. If you come in and you know how to sit down on the carpet quietly and listen to the teacher’s directions, and you know how to, if they’re doing literacy centers, rotate through your centers and put your papers where they belong. And if your pencil breaks where to go to get little things like that. When they come in and they’ve had no preschool experience or TK experience, they come to you for everything. I dropped my pencil on the floor. Well pick it up. But it rolled over there. Well go walk over there and pick it up. I mean, they don’t have a lot of those self-help skills. A lot of them don’t know how to write their names this year. We’ve seen that a lot where a lot of kids don’t know how to write their names. If parents were working and couldn’t send them to preschool, they don’t have time to sit there and do preschool work with them. It might’ve been here, you know, watch these educational games, do this iPad, but that’s not the same as what you would get in preschool where you’re socializing.

Zaidee Stavely:

So Karen, what are the biggest challenges to expanding transitional kindergarten?

Karen D’Souza:

Honestly, the challenges are myriad in expanding transitional kindergarten. It’s a huge enterprise to create a whole new grade. Probably the most crucial one right now I’d say would be staffing. There are staffing shortages throughout the educational system. Everything from teachers, to bus drivers, to cafeteria workers, there simply aren’t enough people in those positions. So here we are creating a new grade and we have to find new teachers. We have to find new teacher aids. There’s also the idea of, you know, somewhat crumbling infrastructure throughout the state. We need radical facilities upgrades, and then right-sized facilities because you need the tiny potties, the tiny water fountains, and everything perfectly sized more for a preschool environment than a K through 12 environment.

Zaidee Stavely:

So I know in the round table that you did, Karen, which I actually want to recommend that all listeners listen to and watch because it was really informative, Samantha Tran from Children Now she said that an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 new teachers are needed and 16,000 new teaching assistants. That’s a lot of people.

Karen D’Souza:

It’s a lot of people at a time of a shortage. It also raises… I mean, there is money in the budget for training and recruitment and development. But make no mistake it will be a Herculean challenge, I think, to get all those positions filled with the right people.

Zaidee Stavely:

So I know there’s been kind of a tension between expanding TK, which is within the public school K-12 system, or doing something to expand preschool, which is a totally different system. There’s private preschool, there’s public state preschool, there’s headstart, there’s all kinds of different preschool options. There’s family childcare in childcare providers’ homes. When we talk about this, sometimes the idea of quality comes up and I think it’s actually a little controversial. Is TK clearly, actually better than preschool?

Karen D’Souza:

There are certainly people on both sides of this. And, you know, TK is really just one way to implement universal preschool. You absolutely could have had some kind of mixed delivery system with vouchers for private preschool. And then you could expand preschool. You could have TK. Um, I think there’s a lot of different ways to do it. One of the things about TK is in an era of declining enrollment and falling birth rates, if you build out the K through 12 system, you have a certain amount of stability there. There is guaranteed funding in the future out of the ADA. Whereas if you were to simply… many people have said, if you were to simply expand, say California state preschool in a lean budget year when we eventually have some kind of economic downturn and there’s not as much money in the budget that money could very well get pulled back. So you’d be able to … fewer children would have access to it. But a grade is a grade that will continue to be funded going forward. Certainly there are a lot of preschool providers and childcare providers who are frankly, just worried about losing their four-year-olds. That’s a huge part of the kids that they service.

Zaidee Stavely:

Right. And there’s also the question of ratio. So in preschool, they actually even have a lower adult to student ratio than TK currently. Paula told us that she has 25 kids in her class normally. This year 24, and she has no aids.

Paula Merrigan:

I’ve always relied on parent volunteers. I’ve never had an aide in my entire career of teaching. Um, but when it’s 24 and just me, it’s challenging. With COVID we are not allowed to have parent volunteers. So I don’t have parents who can help run that art center, who can help play Go Fish. And I’d like to be able to support kids where their academic needs are and have someone else who can help run that art project. So when universal TK having a full-time aide all day, what a difference that will make for teachers. And also with a cap of 24, I know teachers who have had 30 kids, 30 TK kids, with no help. And I just can’t imagine how they do it.

Zaidee Stavely:

And so, as I said, preschool actually has a lower adult to student ratio. So in California the adult to student ratio is usually one adult to 12 children for this age, for, for two to six-year-olds. I think in TK obviously that’s the… Double is what Paula has in her class. I think the state did do something to change that with the expansion of TK, right?

Karen D’Souza:

Absolutely. This is basically a new and improved TK. Some people have even suggested we should call it something else because it really has a much more ambitious scope. I believe the 1 to 12 ratio is where TK will start out and gradually kind of gets smaller and tighter down to 1 to 10, which is more appropriate for this age group.

Zaidee Stavely:

And the other question that came up both in the round table and also listening to Paula when I interviewed her is, she’s a credentialed teacher, she taught kindergarten before teaching TK, but right now she is teaching TK as it is now. So it’s four-year-olds who turn five before December 2nd. And so she said, you know, I’m going to need extra help to learn how to teach those four-year-olds who just turned four by September 1st. Or who will turn five June 1st say. A big difference than what she’s doing right now. And just having the credential, which is a requirement for TK teachers right now, doesn’t automatically make them better at teaching little kids. And so I’m wondering if there’s a way and is California thinking about how to really utilize the power and also the cultural richness and backgrounds of the people who teach preschool right now and who do have the background in teaching younger children.

Karen D’Souza:

I think preschool is a different world in K-12 and you really need to access both kinds of expertise. I know I’m in San Diego, they have an interesting model where they have a TK teacher and a preschool teacher in their TK classrooms. So you can really get the best of both worlds. I think training is going to be a really important thing to look at as we go forward to get that developmentally appropriate understanding of where children are and how they learn best.

Zaidee Stavely:

I asked Paula if she’s planning on sticking around to stay with TK.

Paula Merrigan:

Absolutely. I love TK. I can’t imagine teaching any other grade. I just love this age. They are little sponges. They love coming to school. They love learning. There’s still that joy of learning with these really young kids and those light bulb moments where like, ah get it . And look what I can do where they’re like, I can’t do it. I’m like, yes, you can try. And they’re like, oh my gosh, I did it. Because they just don’t know what they know. If that makes sense. They just don’t know that they can do it till they try. And I hope I just built a really solid foundation for them to continue their educational career.

Karen D’Souza:

And that, for me, just thinking back on our preschool experiences like that, the teachers who love that age are really miracle workers. And they’re capable of pulling off these tremendous feats of progress and transformation with the children. And it’s not a job to them, right. It’s really a life’s work. So every single one of them has to stay or this won’t work.

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you so much for being with us today, Karen.

Karen D’Souza:

Oh, you’re welcome. It’s always great to chat with you guys.

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. A production of EdSource. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to Paula Merrigan, Karen D’Souza, and our director Anne Vasquez. And a big shout out to all the TK teachers, parents, and kids who are paving the way for universal pre-K in California. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the Heising-Simons Foundation. I am Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and don’t forget to subscribe.

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