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transitional kindergarten
Deborah Erickson, center, wasn’t able to send her daughter, Aspen, left, to transitional kindergarten, but she will have the option of enrolling her son, William, right, in the fall of 2017. His birthday is in November. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — What if you were told that your child didn’t qualify for a spot in second grade because he didn’t have freckles? Ridiculous, right? But there’s a law on the books in California that is exactly this arbitrary.

Aspen Erickson, 5, is a kindergartener at Lakewood Elementary School in Sunnyvale, California, one of the southernmost cities in Silicon Valley and home to Internet search giant Yahoo. On a recent fall day, Aspen wore a bright yellow barrette to hold back her curls and a pair of hot pink leggings, the better for running in her school’s second annual Walkathon. This is Aspen’s first year attending public school and her first Walkathon.

But several of Aspen’s classmates, busy ignoring the “walk” part of the event’s title and full-out running their laps around the school’s play yard, already have one Walkathon and a full year of public school under their belts. Those children qualified for a relatively new California program called “transitional kindergarten,” a free, preschool-like year of public education open to any child in California with a birthday in September, October or November.

Aspen’s birthday is in August.

“I thought it was unfair that my friends got free pre-k [for their children] and I didn’t even get a workbook,” said Aspen’s mother, Deborah Erickson, as she watched her daughter’s progress around the field.

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When transitional kindergarten was first introduced in schools in 2012, it was described as merely an extension of kindergarten, a “prequel,” if you will. California had previously decided to change the eligibility guidelines for entering kindergarten. The new rules called for children to have turned 5 before Sept. 1 of the year they started kindergarten. (Previously, the deadline had been Dec. 1, one of the latest in the country. Five states, Connecticut, New Jersey, Kentucky, Colorado and Maine, currently have post-September deadlines that run from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1. Vermont and a handful of other states leave the exact deadline to the determination of local districts.)

“What is shocking to me is how little the discriminatory nature of this program has been discussed.”

The change, urged by kindergarten teachers across the state, was a way to address the increasingly academic nature of kindergarten and the developmental maturity it required as well as an attempt to conform with other states. The change was to be implemented slowly, rolling the eligibility deadline back one month at a time until the 2014-15 school year, when it would hit Sept. 1 and stay there.

But there were two problems.

First, politicians worried that the parents of all the kids who were going to turn 5 in November of that first year would be angry about not getting to enroll them in kindergarten.

Second, the slow rollout would create a smaller than usual kindergarten class for three years. That meant the state, which would be educating fewer children in kindergarten for those years, would save $700 million. “The reason that was a problem is that everyone had an opinion about who ought to be the beneficiary of that savings,” said former state Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat and the law’s champion, in a 2014 interview.

To solve both problems at once, legislators created transitional kindergarten. The kids who were no longer eligible for regular kindergarten—those with fall birthdays—would have a place to go, and the state wouldn’t have to decide how to reassign the funds. They could just spend them on the children for whom they were originally earmarked.

transitional kindergarten
Jack Plow, 4 when this photo was taken, shares his pretzels with a classmate in Laura Smith’s transitional kindergarten classroom at Lakewood Elementary School in Sunnyvale, California. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

What does any of this have to do with freckles? There is no end date for the transitional kindergarten program written into the law. Here’s exactly what it says under education code 48000(c)(3) (emphasis added): “[I]n the 2014-15 school year and each school year thereafter, a child who has his or her fifth birthday between September 2 and December 2 of the school year shall be admitted to a transitional kindergarten program maintained by the school district.”

That means that 25 percent of children, kids born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, are entitled to 14 years of free, taxpayer-funded education in California. Everyone else gets 13.

“I was going to put him back in preschool, but why should I do that when we have a credentialed teacher who will work with him for an extra year? And, it’s free!”

Transitional kindergarten is not targeted to children who have special education requirements, developmental delays, challenging home lives, a home language other than English, or any other factor that might provide an educational justification for an extra year of school. And, ironically, the kids with fall birthdays, who used to be the youngest in any given kindergarten classroom (remember, they hadn’t even turned 5 by the first day of school) are now the oldest. A kid born on Sept. 10 would now be one of the first in his kindergarten class to turn six.

So now the kids who are the furthest along developmentally on day one of kindergarten could also arrive having completed an extra year of public school education.

“What is shocking to me is how little the discriminatory nature of this program has been discussed,” Seth Rosenblatt, a San Carlos School District board member, wrote recently in a commentary for California’s EdSource Today. “I recognize it is far from certain that a court would agree that the Transitional Kindergarten law amounts to illegal discrimination. However, state legislators could act now to require and fund a universal preschool program that would just be … open to all children.”

Rosenblatt is not the first to have that idea. In 2014, then-Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, tried to make transitional kindergarten universal. It would have cost about $990 million a year once it was fully universal, according to Steinberg’s original estimates. While Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, didn’t go on record against his party’s lead state legislator, he never expressed public support for the idea either. It failed.

And so the state is left with a program that provides a year of what is effectively free public preschool—taught by certified teachers with masters degrees in elementary education, a significantly higher bar than is required for most preschool teachers—to just one quarter of the state’s children. The benefit of that set-up was not lost on Karin Plow, the mother of Jack, a transitional kindergartner at Lakewood who turned 5 in October.

“I was going to put him back in preschool,” said Plow, who has also taught elementary school, “but why should I do that when we have a credentialed teacher who will work with him for an extra year? And, it’s free!”

Full-day private preschool in the Bay Area can cost more than $20,000 a year, an amount that is no joking matter for Plow, who works for the Ravenswood school district* and her husband, who is in sales. Like Erickson, Plow spent the morning of the Walkathon at the school helping supervise the activities. After she and the other parents had left, Jack and his classmates followed their teacher, Laura Smith, back to the classroom.

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Transitional kindergarten is meant to be a bridge between 3-year-old preschool and kindergarten. It looks a lot like any high-quality 4-year-old preschool program. There are dress-up clothes, blocks, and other toys—like a very tempting bucket of miniature cars in Jack’s classroom—and there are walls plastered with the A,B,C’s and 1,2,3’s. Students spend their time in a mix of free play and group learning. Jack and his classmates went through the whole alphabet one letter at a time by matching each letter with an animal, a sound and a movement. There’s snack time, recess, art and basic math—think stacking blocks in ascending amounts, not addition worksheets. Essentially, it looks like kindergarten used to look before reading by the end of the year became a requirement.

Officially, transitional kindergarten teachers base their lessons on California’s preschool learning standards, which include both social-emotional and academic targets that range from demonstrating an ability to cooperate to counting 10 objects accurately. Smith, who taught kindergarten for nine years before taking over a stand-alone transitional kindergarten classroom this fall, loves the new grade.

“It just makes sense [for students],” she said. “They’ll be ready and understand school and what’s expected of them. They’ll hit the ground running and just go.”

Smith told a story about one girl for whom she thought transitional kindergarten had been a particularly “huge boost.” The child had arrived in Smith’s combined kindergarten/transitional kindergarten class last year having just lost her father and not speaking any English. By the end of the school year, she was ready to start kindergarten on par with her peers, even those who came from wealthier families with highly educated parents in tech jobs.

transitional kindergarten
Aspen Erickson, 5, runs the Lakewood Elementary track during her school’s Walkathon. Aspen is in kindergarten. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

“She’s doing kindergarten this year and she’s thriving,” Smith said with a huge smile.

Smith’s story gets at the heart of one of the biggest ongoing debates in the early education world. Is the best model for public preschool to welcome all children, even kids like Jack, with two college-educated parents at home, or to serve only those, like the girl in Smith’s class last year, who are most in need of a leg up?

Dean Tagawa, the administrator of early childhood education for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said a universal program would be preferable in his district. Expanding transitional kindergarten to every child in the district would be “a great thing for the district and the parents,” he said.

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To that end, officials at Los Angeles Unified went looking for a work-around to the transitional kindergarten regulations. They wanted to find a way to provide the program to more students than those whose birthdays to qualified them for a spot under state law. They decided to ask the California Department of Education to clarify a section of the law that was a little unclear. What day, exactly, would the state start paying a district to educate a child? The answer, received in late June, was: The day the child turns 5.

That clarification was added to the state’s education code and became effective July 1, 2015. So now, a kid born on April 10 could enroll in any public school on her fifth birthday and the state would be obligated to pay for her. Of course, enrolling a whole bunch of kids on their birthdays would be a logistical nightmare. So the Los Angeles Unified officials came up with a different plan. They would enroll 4-year-olds whose birthdays fell after Dec. 2 in transitional kindergarten on the first day of school and pay for their education with district funds until the children turned 5 and qualified for direct state support.

There was one hitch: The only money the district has available to spend on such a scheme is earmarked for students who are foster children, English language learners, or from low-income families. So when the district opened full-day extended transitional kindergarten programs at 117 campuses this fall, they enrolled students born in the winter, spring and summer who were also foster children, English language learners or from low-income families. Students with fall birthdays continue to be enrolled in one of the district’s regular transitional kindergarten programs (there’s at least one in all 673 elementary schools), no matter their family’s income bracket.

transitional kindergarten
Isabella, a transitional kindergartner at Lakewood Elementary School in Sunnyvale, California puts her leftover snack away in her backpack. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

“Principals were hugely supportive and excited,” Tagawa said. Teachers, too. At a recent union event, Tagawa said extended transitional kindergarten teachers told him their students had made language gains by mid-September that they weren’t used to seeing until December. (Most of the district’s extended transitional kindergarten teachers had previously taught in a now-discontinued half-day public preschool program.) The district plans to open 173 additional sites next year.

Los Angeles Unified, with 646,683 students, is the largest in the state, but it is not the only one finding a way to provide transitional kindergarten to more children than those who officially qualify. Long Beach Unified has used the program to serve kindergarten-eligible children who are deemed to need extra time before starting kindergarten. And some districts have long offered transitional kindergarten-like programs. Palo Alto Unified, for example, has had a “young fives” program since 1975 for kindergarten-eligible children whose parents felt they were too immature for kindergarten.

A June brief on ways to expand transitional kindergarten by the advocacy group Early Edge California highlighted several districts that are providing transitional kindergarten to more students. That includes, among others, the Jefferson Elementary School District, a rural, northern district that enrolls 4-year-olds in a “mid-year kindergarten” class that starts on Dec. 3. So far, there has been no official tally of how many of California’s nearly 1,000 districts are working on such expansions, said Susanna Cooper, a policy and legislative strategy consultant to Early Edge California.

Sunnyvale officials, like those in many other districts, have no immediate plans to expand transitional kindergarten beyond its current boundaries. For Aspen then, there was never really any chance of getting into transitional kindergarten. And Aspen’s mom, Deborah Erickson, isn’t totally sure that’s a bad thing. She didn’t like the idea of sending her daughter to a full-day program last year, so even if she’d had the option to enroll the child, she’s not sure she would have done so.

“But I want a choice,” she said. “I should be able to have a choice.”

Oddly enough, even if the law doesn’t change, she will have that choice in 2018 when her son, William, bearer of a lucky November birthday, becomes eligible for the transitional kindergarten program her daughter was denied.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more of our reporting on early education and California education.

*Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Karin Plow works for the Ravenswood School District in Cupertino, California.

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