When the Los Angeles Unified School District opened its doors for the new school year last week, the number of 4-year-olds who began class in the district's newest grade was more than double the number who enrolled last year.
The district increased the number of expanded transitional kindergarten (ETK) classes from 117 last year to 286 this year, opening seats in the program for nearly 4,000 more children. Nearly 6,300 students are currently enrolled in ETK classes.
ETK is the district's extension of the state's transitional kindergarten program, which was launched in 2013 as a way to enroll students born between September and December who are too young to start kindergarten.
The expansion is being praised by early education advocates, even some who historically have been critical of LAUSD's efforts to serve children under five.
“They are absolutely doing it right,” said Kim Pattillo Brownson, vice president of policy and strategy at First 5 LA.
Brownson said she is “profoundly impressed” by the changes and called the district’s new ETK classrooms a “Cadillac version of quality" preschool that "has a research base and will pay off for children's education."
Last year, the state opened the door for more 4-year-olds to attend the program, but restricted state funds to paying for students once they turned five. The state funding gap limited the number of school districts that actually enrolled more children, but LAUSD used its local funds to begin to enroll low-income 4-year-olds.
In June, the district allocated $44.4 million to the ETK program, paving the way for hundreds of new teachers and teaching assistants, instructional materials and a special education component in 59 of the classes.
The district's expansion of its preschool program this year was also designed to adhere to the highest quality standards in the field, said Dean Tagawa, LAUSD's executive director for early learning.
There is one teacher for every eight children in the program, for example – a ratio that is required by the state of California for this age group and oft-cited as ideal, but not always implemented because of the cost.
LAUSD also trained over 700 early education teachers during the summer and is continuing that work throughout the school year, Tagawa said. Later this week, elementary school principals and directors of early education centers will undergo further early education training.
Pattillo Brownson said that investment in teacher training is critical.
“We know that ongoing professional development [is] what actually moves the needle on improving instruction and classroom quality,” she said.
The classes are also using a new curriculum that focuses on social and emotional development and creative learning.
Additionally, the 59 special education classrooms have a second teacher and an aide working alongside the regular classroom teacher. That creates an even smaller student-to-teacher ratio, which Tagawa said is aimed at helping students with physical and developmental delays and cognitive challenges be more prepared for school in the long term.
“We find that a lot of those children, with this extra help, they do mainstream into general education classrooms or they have less services as they move on," Tagawa said. "So it does help them a lot."
State funds that kick in when students turn five will only reimburse the district for slightly over $11 million for the program. However, Tagawa projects that if all the children continue on with the district through kindergarten, LAUSD will recoup the full $43.1 million price tag for the expansion.
Even with the expansion, 23 LAUSD schools still have waiting lists for their transitional kindergarten classes, according to Tagawa.
And while impressed by the efforts to expand the district’s early education seats and improve program quality, Karla Pleitez Howell, director of the education program at the Advancement Project, cautioned against complacency.
Two years ago, LAUSD ended an initiative known as the School Readiness and Language Development Program (SRLDP), which served about 10,000 children in daily classes that lasted a little under three hours. At that time, the Advancement Project estimated there were already about 87,000 children under five in LAUSD boundaries that did not have a seat in an early care setting.
The new expanded transitional kindergarten seats bring back two-thirds of the SRLDP slots lost and lengthens them to full day.
But “there is still work to be done to assure we increase slots to meet the tremendous need in Los Angeles,” Howell said.