Early Edge California brought legislators, teachers, and Early Learning champions together for a virtual tour of San Diego Unified School District’s new TK 4 program.
California has multiple programs serving 4-year-olds, which can result in confusion and uneven services for the state’s earliest learners.
“What we saw for years and years was an extremely fragmented system,” said San Diego School Board President Richard Barrera. “You had early childhood special education sites, child development centers, preschool sites,” and also Transitional Kindergarten (TK).
Barrera spoke to a group of Early Learning champions last month, including state lawmakers and staff in the Newsom Administration, who toured the district’s new TK 4 program, designed by San Diego Unified to address exactly this problem. The Virtual Early Learning Tour was hosted by Early Edge California, who highlighted the program as a possible model for the state.
San Diego’s TK 4 blends dollars from California’s TK program with funds from the California State Preschool Program (CSPP) to create one program for all 4-year-olds.
Barrera said the new program was an opportunity for 4-year-olds to have “access to the kind of high-quality education that we’ve already been developing for years in our kindergarten through 3rd grade classrooms.”
Stephanie Ceminsky, the school district’s Director of Early Learning Programs, said their goal was to create an integrated system that maximized resources and minimized the duplication of services. The program aligns with goals for universal preschool laid out in the state’s new Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. Children have access to both the California Preschool Learning Foundations and the Common Core State Standards.
The tour was held on Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic and kicked off with a virtual visit to a TK 4 classroom at Valencia Park Elementary School where attendees got to see learning in action. Betsy White, a resource teacher at Valencia Park, said that while the TK 4 program emphasizes the creative play, music, and movement commonly found in preschool classrooms, it also emphasizes early literacy and academic rigor.
“Yes it’s a song and you’re dancing,” she said. “But you are also providing that structure for children and getting them ready for their academic lives.”
Watch our video featuring Valencia Park Elementary School, one of the many sites of TK 4 at San Diego Unified, to find out more about the program and how it supports 4-year-olds.
A panel discussion that followed the virtual visit included San Diego Unified leaders, such as School Board President Barrera, who told the group the district saw the program as a way to expand access to high-quality Early Learning.
“We know a high-quality preschool program is the most effective strategy to eliminate the achievement gap,” Barrera said. “This represented an opportunity to invest in a preschool program that will really produce better outcomes for kids.”
The TK 4 classrooms benefit from being co-taught by both a multi-subject credentialled TK-12 teacher and an ECE permitted preschool teacher. These teams bring combined expertise in play-based learning and the early academic skills children need to be successful in kindergarten. TK 4 classes have an average teacher-to-student ratio of 1:8.
San Diego Unified has placed emphasis on preparing the local Early Learning workforce to best meet the needs of 4-year-olds. This includes training for effective classroom teaching and critical pathways for career advancement, particularly to support ECE teachers aspiring to earn their multi-subject teaching credential.
Acacia Thede, Chief Human Resources Officer for San Diego Unified, joined the tour’s panel, sharing that the school district has developed a teacher pipeline program that provides a pathway and financial support for qualifying staff. Staff who complete coursework for their teaching credential are guaranteed placement in a credentialed teaching position in the school district.
The tour group also heard remarks from state assemblymembers Eloise Gómez Reyes (D-San Bernardino) and Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), both of whom emphasized the importance of investing in high-quality Early Learning, especially in light of the pandemic.
TK 4 was planned long before COVID-19. Despite the enormous challenge of adding a new program during a public health crisis and a district-wide shutdown, leaders decided to move forward with TK 4, holding classes virtually.
“There is a commitment here to Early Learning,” said San Diego Superintendent Cindy Marten. “We understand that we never have to close an achievement gap if it never opens in the first place.”
The district currently has 62 TK 4 classrooms across 55 schools. And at a time when many school districts are experiencing a decline in enrollment in programs for young children due to the pandemic, in San Diego, demand has been high. Leaders plan to expand the TK 4 program to eventually serve all 4-year-olds in the community.
“Policymakers should keep a close eye on the extraordinary work being done here as we implement California’s new Master Plan,” said Early Edge’s Executive Director Patricia Lozano. “The TK 4 program is a great example of how to expand a model with the right support for both Early Learning and TK teachers.” Early Edge is also a co-sponsor with San Diego Unified and several other Early Learning advocates of AB 22, new legislation to expand Universal TK to all 4-year-olds in the state.
“We have a program that we know works here in San Diego Unified,” Superintendent Marten said. “We want to continue to engage in discussions about what it would take to scale the program like this statewide.”