Some Silicon Valley schools ahead of state in early education
The Alum Rock Union School District is repurposing Cesar Chavez Elementary School as an early learning center. File photo.

Schools are implementing a statewide movement for universal transitional kindergarten this year, but districts will have to do much more before all of Santa Clara County’s youngest learners can sit in a classroom.

California is pushing for widespread access to transitional kindergarten (TK) through its universal pre-kindergarten initiative passed in 2021. This grade level will be a stepping stone between preschool and kindergarten. The plan sets in motion gradual enrollment of the state’s youngest students, starting with those turning five between Sept. 2, 2022 and Feb. 2, 2023.

The hope is to have all students age 4 and above enrolled by the 2025-26 school year. The challenge will be staffing this extra grade, experts said, with teacher shortages already a problem throughout the educational system.

All children should have access to high-quality early childhood education, but that requires qualified teachers, said Heidi Emberling, interim chief program officer of FIRST 5, an early childhood nonprofit. TK educators need to obtain an additional 24 units in early childhood education, in addition to standard teaching credentials.

“We need 8,000 to 11,000 new TK teachers over the next four-year phasing period to accommodate every eligible 4-year-old (in the state),” Emberling told San José Spotlight. “This is the first year of expanded TK so we have four years to figure this out.”

The state is working to address staffing shortages by creating funding for teacher residency programs, said Mary Ann Dewan, Santa Clara County superintendent of schools and San José Spotlight columnist. In the county, some school districts are looking for ways to build subsidized housing to lure teachers, and are trying to subsidize this need through bond measures. Grants are also available to aid districts in repurposing classrooms to fit younger students, with general funding based on enrollment and attendance.

The long-term payoffs are clear, said Dewan, adding attending early childhood programs like TK increase the probability that students graduate from high school on time. Early childhood programs also aid in language development, socio-emotional learning and physical development.

In Santa Clara County, a number of school districts already have this new requirement in place.

Santa Clara Unified School District has been offering transitional kindergarten since 2012. The school district expanded from eight to 11 TK classrooms this school year, with enrollment increasing from 140 to 210 students, said interim Superintendent Gary Waddell. The district is working to find qualified teachers to continue increasing its number of TK classrooms, he said. These classrooms also require infrastructure improvements, like appropriately sized bathrooms and play structures.

“The more we can do in the earliest years of children’s lives to set them on a positive course and to build a strong foundation, really pays dividends throughout their school career and their life beyond,” Waddell told San José Spotlight.

Universal TK classrooms have also formed a strong foundation for English language learners (ELL) in the Alum Rock Union School District, said Superintendent Hilaria Bauer. Transitional kindergarten classes have been in the district since 2015.

“Back in 2015, our ELL population was about 70%, with many of them being long-term English learners. Today, we are down to about 40% of ELL population,” Bauer told San José Spotlight. “All of this starts in TK.”

The district is investing in early education by repurposing Cesar Chavez Elementary into an early learning center, which is under construction and expected to open later this year, Bauer said. While the elementary school’s parents expressed concerns over their children having to move to a different school, the early learning center aims to alleviate the demand for child care and early education among East San Jose’s working class families.

“We are hoping to encourage more parents to enroll their 4-year-olds in a high-quality program with a certified early learning teacher,” Bauer said. “It really makes a difference.”

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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