Superintendent Cindy Marten raised a few eyebrows when she announced the lofty goal of closing the achievement gap by first grade. Part of that plan involves leveraging a new state-mandated program called transitional kindergarten.

But Marten’s vision of transitional kindergarten is a little different than the state’s. She’s seeking a waiver so that San Diego Unified can offer a half-day transitional kindergarten program.

And that has some parents wondering whether the program would simply swap some educational disparities for new ones.

What is transitional kindergarten?

Christie Ritter on Schools

When the state Legislature approved the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, the goal was to move back kindergarten eligibility gradually, so that all students are 5 years old when they start kindergarten. Transitional kindergarten is designed to be the first of a two-year kindergarten program for the “younger fives” affected by the date rollback.

Before 2012, children who had their fifth birthday by Dec. 2 could enroll in kindergarten. In 2012, the kindergarten cutoff date was Nov. 1; in 2013 it was Oct. 1 and this year it will be Sept. 1. Transitional kindergarten is offered to those who miss the cutoff date – students whose fifth birthdays are between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

Children born on Sept. 1, 2009, or earlier can enroll in kindergarten this fall. Although school districts are mandated to offer both transitional kindergarten and kindergarten, both grades are optional for students to attend.

Transitional kindergarten started in 2012 at a few San Diego Unified district schools. Fifty-four campuses offer the program this school year and the district wants transitional kindergarten at all 117 elementary schools in the district this fall.

These 4-year-olds are not a new source of money to the district – they would have been in kindergarten, so overall district enrollment is not expected to jump. Nor does the program require hiring new teachers.

How can transitional kindergarten close the achievement gap?

Teresa Walter, executive director of the district’s Office of Teaching and Learning, said transitional kindergarten is a key part of the district’s plan to make sure all children are literate by early elementary school. The district wants to deploy transitional kindergarten teachers as part-time early literacy intervention specialists as part of the program.

That’s where the state comes in: San Diego Unified needs a waiver from the Department of Education so that it can offer a half-day, not full-day, program. State education rules require that school districts are equitable in their offerings: If kindergarten is a full-day program, then transitional kindergarten must be too.

The San Diego Unified school board unanimously approved the waiver application; now the state will decide whether to allow the district to go ahead with the half-day program this fall.

The district envisions a program where transitional kindergarten teachers would spend their time after class working with struggling kindergartners and first-graders, in order to give them the support they need to be reading by first grade.

“For the portion of the day that their transitional kindergarten students may not be with them, they can provide that instructional leadership and support for students in kindergarten and first grade who would need additional support. That’s how we’re looking at hoping to leverage the resources of these trained early learning teachers to support the overall needs of the school,” Walter said.

Can the district find a balance?

The waiver requires that the school district consult with its District Advisory Council (DAC), a group composed of parents and teachers representing their schools.

The DAC’s questions about the waiver request have centered on equity.

The district will receive the same amount of money from the state per student enrolled, but will only provide them a half-day program.

Since schools with smaller enrollments likely won’t have enough students to fill an entire transitional kindergartner class, combination classes will likely be created. Combination classes can be more difficult to teach because a teacher has a wider spectrum of students and two sets of curriculum.

“As a parent of a child coming into kindergarten, I would be very upset if my child, who is coming from an amazing preschool and already knows half the stuff he’s supposed to know in kindergarten, is going to have to be put aside while the teacher is tending to the (transitional kindergarten),” said Alexandra Taclone, a Crown Point Elementary parent.

Under the current plan, transitional kindergartners would be in school for a maximum of four hours. If combo classes are created, the early literacy work planned for the first graders would be impacted, because the teacher will be occupied teaching kindergarten, a full-day program.

Valentina Hernandez, chair of the District English Language Advisory Council, said a half-day program creates a hardship for working parents. “They have to find other babysitting, which is a problem. If they could put them in a preschool program somewhere else full day, they’ll do that.”

San Diego Unified is exploring options for extended care offerings. Many schools already have nonprofits that provide after-school care. But the half-day schedule could throw a wrench in those programs, too, since they would have to operate during school hours, meaning some of the spaces they use now – like auditoriums or lunch rooms – would be occupied.

Superintendent Cindy Marten has pointed out that transitional kindergarten is a half-day program in other districts, including Poway, Oceanside, Coronado, Encinitas, Chula Vista, San Marcos and Vista.

There’s another equity issue at play: They distribution of transitional kindergarten classes across the district.

District officials said they hope to have transitional kindergarten classes at every elementary campus this fall, but so far, schools north of Interstate 8 have far fewer transitional kindergarten classrooms. The La Jolla school cluster, for example, has no transitional kindergarten classrooms in any of its three elementary schools; the Hoover High cluster has the program at all 10 of its elementary school feeders.

District spokeswoman Linda Zintz said some campuses did not have space to house a transitional kindergarten classroom this year, which is why none of the three La Jolla-area elementary schools have the program now.

School board trustee Scott Barnett floated the idea of offering both half-and full-day transitional kindergarten classes, so parents can choose the program that works best for them. “Every parent’s needs are different, so the question is – are there options if we want to concentrate full day in certain schools versus others?”

Marten said the district will continue working out the details and present options to the school board for approval before the start of the next school year.

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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