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SoCal school districts say lack of money stopping transitional kindergarten expansion

FILE: Instructor Veronica Azizi reads to her class at Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Winnetka. Grant Slater/KPCC

After Gov. Jerry Brown's veto of a bill to expand access to preschool for all low-income 4-year-olds, some school districts say finances are stopping them from taking advantage of another option to expand early education. 

A change to the education code that happened quietly over the summer during the budget process allows any child who turns 5 during the school year to be enrolled in California’s transitional kindergarten program. Before this change, a child could only be funded by the state in transitional kindergarten if they turned 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1. 

Los Angeles Unified jumped in quickly, taking 2,340 more children into transitional kindergarten this year who turned 5 after Dec 2. But other school districts say they can't afford to do the same because there's a catch: the state will reimburse districts for the cost of educating a child only from the day the child turns 5. So districts would need to carry the cost of transitional kindergarten for a child who is still four.

Dean Tagawa, administrator of the LAUSD's early education division, said the district opened 117 new sites to accommodate the new students. The district is calling these programs "expanded TK" (ETK) and grouping the younger students together.

Tagawa said these new classes have a different curriculum from the regular transitional kindergarten classes since the younger children are developmentally at a different stage from those who are older. Teachers received special training over the summer to meet the needs of these younger children, he said.

"We're putting a full-time aide in our ETK program," Tagawa said. "In ETK, we definitely want to see a lot of small-group instruction."

The younger children also have more activity stations and play-based learning. "Block play we know is good for their fine motor and gross motor skills, but it's also good for their math skills," he said.

Yet to open so many new, full-day preschool seats for the district's 4-year-olds is costing about $14.3 million in this first year, Tagawa said. About half that money is coming from the 4,000 half-day preschool seats LAUSD cut this year

Tagawa said LAUSD's goal is to open another 171 expanded transitional kindergarten sites next school year to accommodate other children cut from the preschool program.

The remainder of the cost for the new expanded transitional kindergarten seats is covered by the district's Local Control Funding Formula budget, Tagawa said. The new funding formula is aimed at giving local school districts more control over spending state education dollars.

It's not clear how many school districts have taken advantage of the new language in the California education code that governs transitional kindergarten. The California Department of Education is not tracking the figures. A department spokesperson told KPCC that "state law does not mandate that CDE track which districts have TK or which ones opened eligibility through the end of the school year."

KPCC reached out to some of the larger school districts in Southern California to see if they have expanded enrollment in transitional kindergarten.

Riverside Unified's Jennifer Izey, who works in its elementary instructional services office, said the district doesn't have the funds currently to expand the full-day program. Riverside has 29 elementary schools, and each campus has one transitional kindergarten class. Some have two.

The district has enrolled a total of 615 students in transitional kindergarten this year, but all turn 5 between Sept. 1 and Dec 1., she said. There are a few open seats and Izey said if parents want to enroll the child once they turn 5, the district would consider it.

San Bernardino City Unified has 35 transitional kindergarten classrooms, including two dual-language and two special ed classrooms. The district also said it lacked money to expand to more 4-year-olds. Rebecca Clark who oversees transitional kindergarten for the school district said she would like to open seats to more children, but the cost of paying for more teachers, aides and other staff makes the move prohibitive.

"In a district this size, the costs to include every student in an additional year of school without ADA just wouldn’t be feasible," she said, referring to the state funding based on enrollment known as Average Daily Attendance. 

Clark said San Bernardino has a large low-income population and the need for preschool is acute. "We work in a community where children don’t come to kindergarten so prepared," she said. "So, yes, we would love to admit everyone that we could into TK, [but] it's just a matter of funding."

Compton Unified School District has not expanded TK enrollment. Monrovia Unified has, but only to fill existing open seats. Other Southern California school districts did not respond to KPCC's request for interviews.

One nonprofit group looking into whether school districts are expanding transitional kindergarten is Early Edge California. The advocacy organization spearheaded the preschool measure vetoed by Brown known as the Preschool for All Act.

Early Edge created materials to help school districts understand the clarification in the education code on age eligibility for transitional kindergarten and has been reaching out to districts to urge they add more children to their programs. The group is poised to send out an email survey gauging whether school districts have opened more seats.

Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge, said her group, too, is hearing that the cost is preventing districts from adding more transitional kindergarten seats. She has been urging districts to reconsider.

"Those that are thinking long-term will consider the short and long term-savings — fewer students assigned to special education, being held back a grade, and more graduating from high school. These are benefits that outweigh the costs," Kong said.