Del Mar school board member continues to advocate for transitional kindergarten

Del Mar Union School District administration office.
Del Mar Union School District administration office.

(Staff photo)

While efforts continue at the state legislative level to mandate that free transitional kindergarten is available for all four-year-olds, a local effort for transitional kindergarten is building in North County San Diego.

Community member Allison Trent requested the item be placed on the board agendas at Del Mar, Solana Beach, Cardiff and Encinitas school districts, all local districts where they do not offer transitional kindergarten (TK). All districts complied with agenda items in April with recommendations from staff to not offer TK at this time as they do not receive state funding to offer the extra year of public school.

For the record:

10:43 a.m. May 6, 2021The total number of transitional kindergarten eligible basic aid elementary districts in the state is 129 per the California Department of Education.

While other boards had no discussion, Del Mar devoted over two hours on the topic on April 28. Like the other districts, DMUSD staff did not recommend moving forward with TK due to cost and facilities implications and the potential negative impact on the district’s K-6 program.

“This staff is not bringing forward a recommendation to add TK at the expense of children that we are obligated to and at the expense of stakeholders who have stated their priorities very clearly,” said DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg. “It’s a tough decision but that is where our staff landed. It’s not as if we do not support early childhood education. We have a wonderful special education preschool in this district… It’s about priorities and it’s about doing the right thing for all of the kids and, sometimes, it’s a hard decision.”

DMUSD Trustee Katherine Fitzpatrick has been a strong advocate for transitional kindergarten since before she joined the board, leading a petition effort to restore TK in Del Mar back in 2018.

She said for years local parents have been receiving mixed messages: The California Department of Education tells them that a free TK program is offered in all age-eligible school districts but when they call their neighborhood schools to inquire about enrolling their child in TK, like she did with her oldest son, they find out it is not available.

She said what often happens next is that parents don’t enroll their child in any preschool program, they pay to enroll them in a part-time or full-time version or they drive their child to a TK program at a school outside of their home district. Fitzpatrick said none of those options are ideal and hundreds of potential learners are being pushed away.

“I think it’s a disservice,” Fitzpatrick said.

She said TK is already offered in 99% of public schools in California and of the 129 basic aid elementary school districts in the state (those that are funded by property tax revenue) 11 don’t offer TK and five of them are in San Diego County. Along with Del Mar, TK is not offered in the Encinitas, Cardiff, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach school districts.

“It just seems to me that we’re lagging behind what we’re seeing at the state and national level,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are many districts with far less money than we have and they’re not going bankrupt and they never discontinued their program of TK. There’s certainly a plausible way to offer this program and not bankrupt our district and lose all the great programs that we offer.”

Transitional kindergarten is defined as the first year of a two-year kindergarten, using a modified kindergarten curriculum—it is not preschool nor is it a child development program. TK programs are required to be taught by a teacher who meets credentialing requirements.

Del Mar offered transitional kindergarten for only three years, following the passage of the Kindergarten Readiness Act in September 2010 which changed the kindergarten entry date from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 so all children would enter kindergarten at age 5. The legislation required districts to offer TK beginning in 2012-13 with the intention of easing the adjustment of the start dates that were rolled back an additional month every school year.

The first year the district offered TK it had eight students and the numbers rose to 75 TK students in 2014-15, the last year it was offered.

In 2014 Senate Bill 837 was proposed to make TK mandatory in the state, essentially adding a 13th year to the public school system, but it was defeated. This year’s Assembly Bill 22, now in the assembly education committee, proposes to extend universal access to full-day TK programs to all 4-year-olds statewide at no cost to families. The funding component remains unclear.

The current California Education Code law is written to say that school districts shall admit pupils into TK “as a condition of receipt of apportionment.”

“The district does not receive funding for TK so we are not required to provide it,” said Shelley Petersen, DMUSD assistant superintendent of instructional services.

In districts that offer TK, the program is available to 4-year-olds who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. In its current state, Petersen said it is not designed to reach the students of greatest need—it doesn’t address the needs of students who struggle with success which includes homeless students, foster youth, English language learners and students with low socio-economic status.

“The TK program as designed is inherently inequitable,” Petersen said. “It’s inequitable because it addresses nothing other than children born during a certain time range. From our staff’s perspective, offering any program that doesn’t equally provide an opportunity to all students is an inequitable program and counter to what we believe is responsible.”

Cathy Birks, assistant superintendent of business services, said funding a TK program would come at a cost to district priorities such as small class sizes, STEAM + programming, the world language program, the new school in Pacific Highlands Ranch and increasing pension costs, which they do not control.

If offered to students within the three months of eligibility, TK would have a projected cost to the district of $1.9 million a year with approximately six teachers and eight aids. Expanding to 12-months of eligibility, the program would cost $5.6 million a year, assuming 25 classrooms, 26 teachers and 26 aids (meeting AB22’s proposed staffing ratios of 20 students to two adults and 24 students to three adults).

Birks said options the district could explore to fund TK would be to increase class sizes, reducing STEAM+ or using reserves to pay for it: “within a few years, we would be deficit spending.”

Fitzpatrick said while she has been told that TK has not been voiced as a priority, she encouraged the district to make a real effort to ask what the community wants.

“I have not seen the question posed: ‘Do we want to expand early childhood education opportunities in this district?’ I don’t think that question has been asked of our community and I think it needs to go further than asking current families,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not solely up to us to determine how we’re allocating our property tax dollars. We need to do the outreach.”

During public comment, six parents spoke out in support of bringing back TK, describing the role it plays in helping children develop academic and social skills as well as the district’s responsibility in investing in the community’s children.

Parents Lynette and Pranav Jaiswal said they have been searching for opportunities for their 4-year-old and are coming up short, first reaching out to Del Mar and then Poway Unified where they were unable to get in. The Jaiswals shared their frustrations as just that day, President Joe Biden discussed his plans to provide substantially increased funding for more access to early childhood education programs for 3- to 5-year-olds.

“Clearly there is a societal demand with regard to early childhood education,” Lynette Jaiswal said. “From my perception, DMUSD has elected to excuse themselves from offering TK…using a legislative loophole to exclude children just because of where they live.”

Pranav Jaiswal said while he appreciates the district’s commitment to fiscal responsibility, there was no mention of the impact on children who aren’t going to get an early education as a result of the district’s lack of TK.

“All you’ve done today is talk about why you can’t do it,” he said. “Let’s give some thought to you might be able to do it.”

The board as a whole was supportive of the idea of TK if they received state funding to provide it or if there was a way to fund it without “bankrupting the district” or without making major cuts that would negatively impact all K-6 students.

Trustee Scott Wooden said it’s not that the district doesn’t have the money, it’s a question of priorities: To offer it would come at a cost to something else. Wooden said he does not support the way the TK program is currently designed, as essentially a lottery for the oldest 4-year-olds. He said the program should include all students that would enter kindergarten the following year or be a smaller program targeted to students that need more intervention.

Fitzpatrick continued to urge the district to get community input around TK and early childhood education. McClurg said she is always interested in stakeholder input and values but could not specify a date when such a survey might go out. Input could be provided during the district’s budget process, through Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) surveys or at the district’s strategic planning sessions.

In a recently written op-ed, Fitzpatrick wrote that the pandemic has shined a light on the significance of early childhood care.

“There is an awakening to the idea that investing in our society’s youngest learners, from birth and on, reaps benefits far beyond what is demonstrated by a test score,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “If you have ever spent any amount of time amongst a group of 4 and 5-year olds, you would see how engaged they are in exploring, understanding and taking ownership of the world around them.

“Why, then, delay opportunities for our youngest citizens to take part in enriching programs that not only benefit them, but society as a whole?”