Our new series covers California’s Transitional Kindergarten (TK) expansion in the 2022-23 school year through interviews with districts across the state to highlight strategies they have employed to make expansion successful. This is the second blog in the series.
When the school year kicked off in Ventura County this August, more than 3,250 4-year-olds attended their first day of TK in 108 school sites across the county. As of the 2022-23 school year, 78 percent of districts in Ventura County have expanded to serve more 4-year-olds than the state’s eligibility requirements, currently 4-year-olds born between September 2nd and February 2nd. But why are so many districts in Ventura County expanding early? Reasoning varies from district to district, but one factor that may be hard to ignore is that Ventura County is experiencing one of the highest rates of declining enrollment in the state – and early TK expansion could be a way to curb the negative budget impacts brought on by declining enrollment.
One theory of early TK expansion is that it could create what some have coined “Average Daily Attendance (ADA) Loyalty.” This idea proposes that families who decide to enroll in a particular school or district due to the early expansion of its TK program will be more likely to stay in that district throughout the entirety of their child’s K-12 career. Districts who expand TK to serve 4-year-olds beyond the state’s current age eligibility will not accrue ADA for the children born after February 2 until that child turns 5-years-old. While this is a short-term investment to cover costs until a child turns 5, the hope is that this will result in long-term returns as families remain in the district after TK. The immediate benefit to families is gaining access to a free, high-quality Early Learning option for their children.
While ADA Loyalty may be one motivating factor for school districts experiencing declining enrollment, Julie Ellis, Director of Certificated Personnel at Simi Valley Unified School District, which fully expanded its TK programs this year, states that the real motivating factor for early TK expansion in their district was equity and access for their community. Ellis explained, “It’s a difficult conversation to have with parents that their child can’t enroll in our TK program because their birthday falls outside of the eligibility window.”
Since Simi Valley Unified already had a strong TK program prior to expansion, they felt that expanding early to serve all 4-year-olds was the right move to better support children and families in their community. Prior to making the decision to expand ahead of schedule, they had conversations with their TK teachers to ensure that they were fully on board. With buy-in from their teachers and staff, the district made the decision to fully expand and began preparations last year. Ellis attributes the district’s successful expansion to several factors, but a large element was the infrastructure of support the district has through its internal and local partnerships. This infrastructure included the collaborative efforts of all of the district’s departments, as it needed to address expansion through the lens of Facilities, Child Nutrition, Educational Services, Personnel, IT, and Student Support. Each had a role and responsibility in preparing to launch the expanded program. It was through this successful district-based coordination and newly established community partnerships that Simi Valley Unified successfully opened its classrooms to all eligible four-year-olds.
Simi Valley Unified’s partnerships with its local community college, Moorpark College, and with Las Virgenes Center EdX, also supported the district’s early expansion by providing ongoing professional development for its Early Learning and TK teachers. Las Virgenes Center EdX partners with the district to help teachers achieve the 24 Early Childhood Education and Child Development units needed to be a lead teacher in a TK classroom, ensuring that the district has the qualified teacher workforce it needs to support its programming. Moorpark College’s Child Development program was consulted to support the shift in Simi Valley Unified’s programming to address the developmental needs of the younger students being served and supports TK teachers with instruction on how to implement play-based education. This collaboration is critical to supporting the Early Learning infrastructure in the region and ensuring a workforce that is well-prepared to serve young children in a TK setting.
Simi Valley Unified’s success is also a result of ongoing collaboration with their local county office of education. Ventura County Office of Education (VCOE) has played a crucial role in TK expansion and implementation in districts across the region. Alicia McFarland, Director of Early Childhood Programs at VCOE, sees the role of COEs as conveners to support Local Education Agencies (LEAs) in leveraging resources and partnerships, as well as sharing best practices. One best practice that has been recommended by VCOE and Simi Valley Unified, is the creation of new positions dedicated specifically to managing and supporting Early Learning programs and TK. VCOE hired a UPK Coordinator to support countywide efforts for planning and implementation of TK expansion. These efforts will include the roll out of a Ventura County Early Education Teacher Development consortium with funds supporting recruitment, retention, qualifications, and advancement of the preschool and TK workforce. Simi Valley Unified has two positions to manage these programs across the district, a Coordinator of Early Childhood Development, and a recently created position, Assistant Director of Early & Expanded Learning. These positions have been critical to supporting the successful expansion of TK and ensuring that the elementary school administration and staff have a deeper understanding of developmentally-appropriate integration of Early Learning and how to serve younger students on their campuses.
McFarland shared, “As COEs are quickly responding to TK expansion and creating new roles, there is a real opportunity to bring those networks together so that staff in these positions have peers and mentors to collaborate with and learn from.” While formal professional development is important to supporting children in the classroom, TK and Early Learning staff would also benefit from opportunities like professional learning communities to foster interdistrict networking. “It can be very isolating to be the only one in your district charged with managing a particular program,” continued McFarland. “COEs help connect staff in districts across the county and facilitate opportunities for cross-collaboration.”
Ventura County’s collaborative approach is already benefiting the region’s youngest learners and serving as a model for early implementation of TK.
The Family Perspective: Chelsea Baxter, parent of three children who have attended TK in Simi Valley Unified, shares her experience with the program. Her youngest child started the program this fall.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the age-appropriate learning happening in my kids’ TK classrooms. The centers weren’t all worksheets. They were shaping play-doh letters, using tongs to sort small items, and doing other fun tasks that worked on fine motor skills. And I have many videos of my kids following along with their teacher’s dance moves to silly songs. I loved that our TK teacher talked about ‘purposeful play’ at back-to-school night, and I appreciated the play-based learning approach my two older kids received in TK.
[My youngest child] is getting exactly what I hoped he’d get from the program. He’s experiencing school without the stress of what comes later: assessments, grades, homework, etc. He gets to go to school and dance, play, sing, and make friends. His first interaction with his school campus is one of curiosity and fun. I can’t think of a better way to instill a love for school and learning.
I’m glad the state chose to expand the age range for TK. After volunteering in the kindergarten class with my older two, I remember seeing the benefits in students who attended TK the year prior. And I recall asking myself why all students weren’t able to access what seemed like a huge advantage. I’m thankful this compassionate, age-appropriate, and fun introduction to elementary school is now available to everyone.”