Districts expanding transitional kindergarten – even at a cost

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East Whittier City School District is expanding its program for the state’s newest grade: transitional kindergarten (TK). It's one of a growing number of districts finding a way to get as many four-year-olds into the program as possible, even when the state won’t pay until the kids turn five.

In 2010, the legislature changed the cut-off dates for kindergarten: kids now needed to turn five by September 1st, instead of December 1st. The new grade, transitional kindergarten (TK), was meant to serve students with birthdays between September 2nd and December 2nd, offering them a year of instruction to prepare them for the rigors of kindergarten.

Then in 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that allowed for some flexibility in determining the cut-off dates for TK enrollment.

Many educators, who see early instruction as a kind of down payment for future academic success, were happy with the development.

"We believe it helps our kids if they get that extra year from us," said Dr. Drew Passalacqua, director of Administrative Services at the East Whittier City School District. "And then when they get older in school, it’ll be less likely that they’ll have challenging situations with reading and math."

A lot of parents like it too, because if their child is eligible, it’s basically a free alternative to preschool. And, Passalacqua said, the program is popular with the kids, who "get the entry-level academics in the morning and then all kinds of exploratory arts, painting, building—all the things we loved to do as kids."

But the state doesn’t pay for public school for 4-year-olds, which prevents many other districts from offering TK to younger kids.

East Whittier City is willing to fund the early childhood program because the state will start paying for them through its Average Daily Attendance, or ADA, formula once the kids turn five. If there's still space, the district will open up slots for kids who turn five in January.

Nearby, Little Lake School District accepts kids into its TK program who turn five as late as March 2nd.

Last week, the governor's office released an omnibus education trailer bill, which includes language that would allow school districts to run state preschool on school district’s campuses without the normal licensing and building requirements.

"The trailer bill doesn’t address Expanded Transitional Kindergarten specifically," said Kim Pattillo Brownson, Vice President of Policy and Strategy for First Five LA. "But, provided they met the other state requirements, school districts could choose to run state preschool in the first semester, for income eligible kids, and then have ETK in the second semester paid for with ADA."

Then, the state-funded preschool would pay for some of the first semester, which would be an improvement over the current situation, where districts get no reimbursement at all.

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