More 4-year-olds in Berkeley will be eligible for transitional kindergarten
On a Tuesday morning at Malcolm X Elementary School, 21 children counted ice cream flavors and traced their names in Play-Doh with the encouragement of teacher May Lynne Gill.
It’s the first time in school for many 4- and 5-year-olds in Berkeley Unified’s Transitional Kindergarten program, which exposes children to letters and counting, prepares them for kindergarten structure, and teaches them to play nice.
The morning unfolded in a flurry of activities, each lasting less than 15 minutes to accommodate the attention span of the children. Between lessons, students waddled like penguins and swam like polar bears during a dance break, and before lunch they had about 20 minutes of free-choice play, where some chose magnetic building blocks and others were playing with beads. Along the way, they practiced asking their classmates for help (rolling a Play-Doh snake can be tricky!) and apologizing if they “made a red choice” instead. of a “green choice”.
Malcolm X is one of seven elementary schools in the Berkeley Unified School District with a transitional kindergarten program. Originally designed for older 4-year-olds about to turn 5, the program, called “universal knowledgestarted to expand this year and will eventually accommodate all 4-year-olds.
“It’s an expansion of public education. This means there is more universal access to high-quality education than our state has been able to provide before,” said Alexander Hunt, Principal of Malcolm X Elementary.
School is not compulsory in California until a child is 6 years old. Transitional kindergarten was introduced in the state in 2012 after the Kindergarten Readiness Act adjusted the birthday threshold for kindergarten. Previously, 4-year-olds could enroll in kindergarten as long as they had to turn 5 by December 2; as of 2012, the birthday deadline was pushed back to September 1. Transitional kindergarten was created for students with birthdays between September 2 and December 2, who were no longer eligible for traditional kindergarten.
The transitional kindergarten birthday range will continue to expand until the 2025-26 school year, when all 4-year-olds, regardless of their birthday, will be eligible. This year, students who will be 5 years old between September 2 and February 1 are eligible. Over the next few years, this month will gradually expand to include all 4-year-olds.
The expansion is part of a statewide effort investing in early childhood education, which experts say can be crucial in closing achievement gaps and producing better outcomes for children once they reach kindergarten. A 2017 study Evaluate the Early Years of California’s Transitional Kindergarten Program showed that students had better early literacy and math skills compared to students who had only attended preschool, particularly early in kindergarten.
“All the early intervention we do is what pays off in the long run,” Hunt said.
In Berkeley, Hunt thinks most families already send their children to preschool. Transitional kindergarten is always a positive development at Berkeley, he said, but it will have the greatest impact in parts of the state where it is not.
BUSD currently offers early childhood education for low-income families in three kindergartens. Families who need child care but do not qualify for a BUSD preschool must pay for a private preschool or other child care. There is a range of private preschools in Berkeley, from more structured programs to those that focus almost entirely on play and exploration like Forest School.
Transitional kindergarten will be free for all families.
Next year, Hunt’s own daughter will be eligible for transitional kindergarten, thanks to the new birthday deadline. Hunt plans to enroll her in TK because he believes the program provides a high-quality, age-appropriate education with an accredited teacher. (Preschool teachers are not required to be accredited.) That will mean one less transition for her youngest child, and all three of her children will be able to attend the same school next year.
While preschool largely focuses on play as a way of learning, transitional kindergarten is more structured and academic, while introducing routines, like queuing or cleaning up your space. BUSD’s TK program also provides educational aids and additional aids to students with disabilities who need them.
Transitional kindergarten is an “equalizer”
Gill’s curriculum doesn’t follow a predetermined curriculum: it’s the product of years of iteration, though this year BUSD is testing a math curriculum for transitional kindergartens in the San Francisco Unified School District.
Cherilynn Abaye, a teacher’s aide who works alongside Gill, is referred to as Mrs. Cherry by the children. She helps students stay focused during class, encouraging them to stay focused or continue working on their Play-Doh letters with displays of affection. When one student pushes another in the lunch queue, it is Abaye who pulls the student aside to right the wrong and get an apology.
For Gill, the most important thing is that children “learn to be compassionate, to be patient, to speak kindly”. “They just want to be loved,” she said. “They just want to be talked to and listened to.”
Gill thinks opening transitional kindergarten to younger students will be a challenge.
Already, students arrive in transitional kindergarten with very different abilities: some can already read and count to 10, while others are just beginning to recognize letters. In this way, transitional kindergarten acts as an “equalizer,” Gill said, “exposing [some kids] basic concepts” for the first time. In response, Gill is to provide more different versions of many lessons based on student abilities.
As younger students enter her class, she expects to have to modify her schedule to accommodate the age difference. “We will have to give up a lot,” she said. “It won’t be age-appropriate anymore.”
Gill, who is in her ninth year of teaching transitional kindergarten and her 19th year of teaching overall, said that over time the program has become more academic and structured. The kindergarten program has, to some extent, slipped into transitional kindergarten, although younger students still have more time to play.
But even Gill isn’t so sure transitional kindergarten is appropriate for the youngest 4-year-olds, who she says need more playtime.
Enrollment in transitional kindergarten has fluctuated during the pandemic, but has increased to 156 students this year. In 2020, when BUSD only offered remote learning for most of the school year, 81 students were enrolled in transitional kindergarten. In 2021, the number has increased to 101 students.
BUSD currently offers eight transitional kindergarten sections in Malcolm X, Slyvia Mendez, Washington, Cragmont, Ruth Acty and Rosa Parks. New this year is a transitional kindergarten class at Berkeley Arts Magnet.
Ultimately, educators are optimistic that investments at an earlier age can lead to better outcomes in later years. By 2025, when transitional kindergarten is available to all 4-year-olds, hundreds more will be able to enroll in a BUSD program. The school district plans to add four more transitional kindergarten classes over the next few years.