A kindergarten teacher puts a marker on her classroom calendar indicating the first day of school in 2013. / File photo by Sam Hodgson

When Dana Cole picked her son Henry up from Foster Elementary School after his first day of transitional kindergarten, he only wanted to talk about one thing. 

“He told me that the kid next to him had a very cool Spider-Man backpack and they played Spider-Man at recess,” Cole said. “I was like, ‘okay, but what did you do at school?’ and he said ‘Spider-Man.’” 

But beyond Henry’s fixation with the web-slinging vigilante, Cole said he seems happy at Foster Elementary.  

Prior to enrolling there, her son attended a private Jewish preschool. She and her husband aren’t Jewish themselves, but some of the children of the family’s friends attended, and they liked the school and its teachers. They were entertained when their son came home singing songs in Hebrew – which neither of them speak.  

But the school was further from their home, which meant not as many kids in their immediate neighborhood attended. Cole describes herself as “overly social.” She’s the kind of person who’s friendly with all of her neighbors, and she’s long dreamed of her son having the kind of childhood where he can walk with a friend to school or to baseball practice. Having the sense of community she felt attending a neighborhood school could provide was important to her. 

So, when California created its universal transitional kindergarten program, a grade for 4-year-olds that bridges the gap between preschool and kindergarten that had previously been available only to a subset of kids born during certain months, she was excited to send her son to their neighborhood school, but didn’t think San Diego Unified would launch it in time for her son to attend. After all, it wouldn’t be fully phased in and available to all 4-year-olds until 2025. When San Diego Unified announced it would bypass that phasing-in period and make it available to all 4-year olds the next school year, Cole jumped at the opportunity. 

Despite her enthusiasm, Cole said even figuring out how to enroll her son was a challenge. “There wasn’t a lot of communication about it, we had to seek out that information,” Cole said.  

It took several calls and multiple trips to the school before they succeeded. Cole, a marriage and family therapist, noted that effort was only possible because of her flexible schedule. “For people who don’t have that luxury, it must’ve been a lot harder,” she said.  

Maureen Magee, San Diego Unified’s communications director, wrote in an email that the district’s Neighborhood Schools Enrollment Options office provides support to parents in multiple languages, and that two Zoom workshops for parents interested in transitional kindergarten are planned for later this month. Those workshops will also be translated. “We’ve attempted to make the enrollment process as streamlined as possible, but we always welcome feedback from parents,” Magee wrote. 

Overall, Cole has been very satisfied with her son’s transitional kindergarten experience. Henry’s already made lots of friends in the neighborhood, like she’d hoped – including the boy with the Spiderman backpack, who he now plays with almost every day – and he’s made progress toward learning how to read. She’s also been excited to see him develop socially, like when he shared how his teacher helped talk him through an incident when another boy pushed him. By the end of the experience the other boy had apologized. 

“They had clearly had like a conflict resolution procedure or some kind,” she said. “That was cool to see.” 

Enrolling at Foster also had the benefit of saving the family the around $1,600 a month they were spending to send their child to a private preschool But she also knows the program won’t work for everyone.  

It only runs from around 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., with a half day on Wednesdays, which is fine with she and her husband because of her flexible schedule but wouldn’t necessarily work for parents with a “regular 9-to-5 job,” Cole said. “Let alone if you have like a shift job, where your shift changes and you have to figure that out,” she said. 

San Diego Unified does have the PrimeTime program, which offers before and after-school care at a number of schools, but the district writes that they anticipate demand at most schools will exceed the program’s capacity. Priority is given to students already enrolled, those receiving free or reduced lunch, single-parent or military families, families whose guardians both work or attend school full-time and children recommended for academic assistance. Highest priority is given to homeless students or foster youth. 

The launch of universal transitional kindergarten put added stress on the already strained private childcare industry by offering a free alternative to parents of private providers’ most profitable demographic – 4-year-olds, who legally require less supervision than younger children. But it also helped San Diego Unified’s rate of enrollment decline drop to the lowest level in at least five years, and district officials hope the program may encourage parents who enroll their kids in a San Diego Unified transitional kindergarten program to stick around, creating a new pipeline of students that can help the district’s enrollment woes long-term.  

But Cole said her family already knew they wanted Henry to attend public school. Still, Cole’s satisfaction with Foster’s TK program is why she’s taken it upon herself to share information with some of her neighbors and encourage them to enroll their children. 

Content Bouncing Around my Mind Palace 

What We’re Writing 

  • Some San Diego Unified officials see last year’s influx of transitional kindergarten students as much more than an isolated blip, but as a way to blunt, or even reverse, long-term enrollment decline. 
  • Over the past year, local school systems from K-12 to community colleges have increasingly begun to see themselves as a potential part of the solution to the lack of housing supply, advancing plans to build everything from dorms to employee housing to affordable student housing. 

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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