On a cool January evening, about a hundred San Diego Unified educators gathered at the Mission Valley headquarters of the San Diego Education Association, the union that represents the district’s teachers. Many attendees showed up clad in red, the union’s trademark color. But it wasn’t a standard union meeting. That night, San Diego Unified Superintendent Lamont Jackson and other district top staff were also in attendance.
Teachers gathered to advocate for changes to the district’s universal transitional kindergarten program, a new grade the state created for 4-year-olds. “This isn’t a typical meeting where the district leader talks and we listen,” SDEA wrote in a Facebook post. “This time the shoe is on the other foot – we’re going to talk, and they’re going to listen!”
Some San Diego Unified officials have big hopes for the program, which it rolled out last year, three years earlier than the state required. More than just an isolated increase in enrollment, which UTK clearly provided, officials view it as a way to combat a long-term trend of enrollment decline. If they can get kids into the district early and impress parents with the instructional quality, the logic goes, maybe they’ll stick around long term. But the opposite could also happen. A poor program could repel parents from the district.
But beneath the confidence of some officials, San Diego Unified educators are frustrated. From a curriculum some say is virtually nonexistent or simply repurposed from kindergarten, inadequate supplies that leave them buying age-appropriate toys with their own money and insufficient training and staff, many educators view the rollout of the program as rushed and haphazard.
“The district doesn’t seem to have a clear vision and direction, or a communication system for UTK,” said Lisa Morris, a UTK teacher at the district.
Concerns About Staffing and Training
Over and over, teachers coming out of the meeting spoke about a lack of staff. Currently, each of San Diego Unified’s UTK classrooms has one credentialed teacher, who often have experience teaching kindergarten, and one early childhood education teacher. These two co-teachers are in charge of up to 24 children. This ratio isn’t unique to SDUSD. It’s the benchmark created by California’s UTK program, with a requirement that schools reduce the ratio to 10 children for every one adult by 2025.
Still, many San Diego Unified educators feel the current ratio isn’t working. Some said they’ve had to skip lunch breaks, while others said there aren’t enough adults to properly take care of children during recess, when teachers should be taking breaks. “At a lot of the schools, 4-year-olds have to go by themselves out of the classroom to find a bathroom on campus,” Morris said.
This staffing trouble is compounded in special education, where some kids may have behavioral issues that need more attention. “Special Ed programs are now mainstreamed in the UTK, which is fantastic, and teachers support that. But with the staffing shortage, there’s just no support for them,” Morris said.
Wendy Aardappel said it feels as if the district is building the UTK program on the fly – and had they not accepted all 4-year-olds in year one, the flight may have been smoother. “If they had rolled it out more slowly, even though they’re still flying the plane and building it, they would have had more room to fly lower down to the ground,” Aardappel said.
“San Diego Unified is committed to ensuring the success of UTK,” San Diego Unified communications director Maureen Magee wrote in a statement. “The feedback from SDEA will help the district strengthen UTK for educators, students, and families. The district looks forward to ongoing collaboration with SDEA as it develops solutions for additional resources and training to support UTK.”
Aardappel has been teaching for 22 years, but this was her first year teaching transitional kindergarten. “I was super excited that we were going to be able to reach the youngest learners,” Aardappel said. “But I didn’t know how it was going to work.” She, like other UTK teachers, feels the district hasn’t provided the amount of training they’ve needed to step into this new classroom environment. And when they have provided trainings, Aardappel hasn’t been able to attend because they’ve been at times when she’s had to pick up her own kids from school, and the district hasn’t recorded them.
Teachers in UTK classrooms are also contending with another big change that many have no experience with – now co-teaching classrooms. According to Morris, the union had an MOU with the district that laid out some of the elements it hoped to see in the UTK rollout. One of the requests was for training, not only for newly paired co-teachers, but for those who hadn’t worked in early childhood classrooms. The district was supposed to provide training shortly after school started, but eventually the union had to file a grievance to get the district to provide it.
But instead of the in-person hands-on training that allowed co-teachers to collaborate that educators had hoped for, the district simply gave teachers a day off and held a training on Zoom. “So it wasn’t like (the co-teachers) could really work together and build on things,” Morris said. “It was not the training that we had envisioned.”
A Lack of Curriculum and Supplies
One of the chief concerns expressed about SDUSD’s UTK program is that the curriculum is not developmentally appropriate for 4-year-olds and bears more resemblance to that of a kindergarten class than to the experiential, play-based learning children of that age need.
“There’s a disconnect in what the space between preschool and kindergarten is supposed to look like,” said UTK teacher Sonia Bouchard.
While Morris said there is some curriculum, she said that the standards they’re supposed to expect of children aren’t clear. “What we have now is almost like just a modified version of kindergarten,” Morris said. “How do we prioritize children’s need (for) social emotional learning versus their math and reading skills at 4-years-old?” she asked.
San Diego Unified board member Richard Barrera has acknowledged that the district’s UTK program isn’t perfect. He said the goal is to blend early childhood development with the academic aspects of kindergarten, but that “it’s a work in progress in terms of the curriculum.”
And beyond the frustrations with curriculum, teachers say they haven’t been provided the kinds of supplies needed to create an enriching experience for 4-year-olds. Aardappel said some money for supplies eventually arrived, but not before she spent $80 of her own money on a play kitchen for her classroom. She recently received an Amazon gift card from a parent and spent it on crayons for her classroom.
What’s more, said Morris, is that if it falls on teachers to provide toys and supplies either by spending their own money or fundraising for them, school sites whose parents are able to donate more will inevitably be able to provide more than others. “There’s a total lack of equity with that,” Morris said. Advocates have pitched universal transitional kindergarten as a tool to combat the achievement gap, but if those inequities persist, Morris said the program may only exacerbate it. Especially because parents with resources have the option of sending their children to high-quality preschool programs, and those who rely on the free care UTK provides will stick with the program.
“In order for educational equity to happen the programs need to be high quality across the district,” Morris said.
Morris thinks San Diego Unified’s UTK program is far from a lost cause, in fact she thinks it has the potential to be an “extremely high-quality program.” After all, she’s heard mostly positive things from parents. “It’s just that the rollout was so quick that the resources, the vision, the planning, were unable to keep up,” she said.
Those concerns were widespread at the meeting with Jackson. The mood outside of the meeting was one of frustration, with some teachers saying they felt like Jackson had listened to their concerns but hadn’t necessarily heard them and others saying he’d simply told them what they wanted to hear. “He wasn’t understanding how much help we need,” Aardappel said.
Jackson was “reticent to make any grand gesture of any change,” said Morris. “There was a lot of ‘that’s what we want too, we believe in that too.’ But what we were asking for were commitments,” she said. The one commitment they did receive was that the district would create a joint panel with all stakeholders to collaborate on future changes to the implementation of UTK. But that fell short of what many educators were hoping for.
At the end of the meeting, union officials asked attendees to clap for Jackson if they felt he’d sufficiently committed to solving the problems they’d brought up. Jackson, attendees recalled, received only scattered and lackluster claps.