Over the next few years, every 4-year-old in California should be able to start learning in a public school classroom through a state-funded program called universal transitional kindergarten.
In San Diego, it’s already started.
Some parents eagerly signed their kids up for the free program, while others are worried about the curriculum and say the San Diego Unified School District rushed the implementation of the program.
What Is Universal TK?
Universal Transitional Kindergarten, or UTK, is an expansion of the existing transitional kindergarten program. It allows schools to bring more 4-year-olds into classrooms for the first year of a two-year kindergarten experience.
Now, parents can send their 4-year-olds to a public school for an extra year instead of paying for childcare or preschool.
All school districts are required to provide transitional kindergarten to children who meet the age requirements and there are no waitlists. Charter schools do not have to provide UTK.
The $2.7 billion initiative was signed into law in 2021 and has been rolled out at school districts across the state. The law requires any school district operating a kindergarten to also provide a TK program for all 4-year-old children by 2025–26.
San Diego Unified School District was an early adopter and offered UTK at most schools starting in the 2022-23 school year.
Who Does it Apply to Now?
Any student who turns 4 years old by Sept. 1 is eligible for UTK in the San Diego Unified School District.
Previously, students had to turn five between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 to get a spot in transitional kindergarten at their school. The idea was to catch students who missed the cutoff for kindergarten.
This new UTK program expands the pool of 4-year-olds who are now able to be in school.
Districts are not required to expand transitional kindergarten programs until the 2025-26 school year. While SDUSD already expanded the program, the state outlines a phased approach for school districts to follow.
- For the 2022-23 school year, transitional kindergarten is open to children who turn five between Sept. 2 and Feb. 2.
- For the 2023-2024 school year, children who turn five between Sept. 2 and Apr. 2 can enroll.
- In 2024-2025, that expands to children who turn five between Sept. 2 and Jun. 2.
- And by 2025-26, all children who turn four by Sept. 1 will be eligible for transitional kindergarten.
Do Families Pay for UTK?
No. UTK is free as part of California’s public K-12 school system. The program also provides free access to meals.
Is UTK Optional?
Yes. UTK and kindergarten are both voluntary. In California, children are only required to attend school once they turn 6, which would put them in first grade.
What Schools Offer UTK Now?
San Diego Unified will continue to offer UTK at 118 elementary and K-8 schools, excluding the Language Academy, Logan Memorial Education Campus, Mt. Everest Academy and iHigh/Virtual Academy. This year, most elementary schools have one UTK classroom, some schools have two classrooms and one school has three. That could change based on site capacity and construction.
Some districts, including Poway Unified School District and Chula Vista Elementary School District, are taking the phased approach. So, they plan to include children who turn five between Sept. 2 and Apr. 2 in the transitional kindergarten program next year.
Chula Vista currently offers dual-language (Spanish and English) transitional kindergarten at 29 elementary schools, including five charter schools. Registration is ongoing and parents can still sign their students up to enroll this year. The district also plans to add more TK classrooms next year to accommodate more students.
What Districts Don’t Offer TK?
In North County, Cardiff, Del Mar, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach school districts do not offer any transitional kindergarten programs. District leaders have argued that they can’t afford to add the program because they don’t get money from the state to pay for it.
What Do Kids Learn in UTK?
Schools use a modified kindergarten curriculum that is age and developmentally appropriate, which could be modified with the new age ranges. The programs are intended to align with the California Preschool Learning Foundations developed by the California Department of Education.
Kids learn basic academic skills like reading, writing and math. They also learn social and emotional skills coloring in the lines, following rules, how to get along with students, how to get up and fill their water bottles, go to the bathroom by themselves and do show and tell.
Transitional kindergarten classes are capped at 24 students with two teachers to ensure a 12:1 student to teacher ratio. State lawmakers could change that to a 10:1 ratio.
Is UTK a Full-day or Half-day Program?
It varies. The decision about whether schools offer a full-day or a half-day program is made by the local school district.
At San Diego Unified and Chula Vista, it’s a full-day program that aligns with the school’s bell schedule.
If parents feel their child is not ready for a full day of school, SDUSD also offers free part-day preschool programs at 17 schools and an extended-day early learning program at Central Elementary for three and four year old children in low-income families.
Poway Unified School District runs a part-day program that has kids in the classroom for about 4 hours. They can also participate in a paid after school program.
What About After School Care?
San Diego Unified School District’s PrimeTime program is open to students in grades UTK through eighth. Those after school programs are all offered at the school sites.
However, it’s a separate enrollment process. So, parents need to sign their kids up for both programs and they aren’t guaranteed a spot.
Where and How do Families Sign up?
Parents should contact their neighborhood school to get information about whether space is available in the UTK program.
At SDUSD, parents must pre-enroll because seats are limited. They can do that online or in-person at their child’s school. Pre-enrollment will begin in February 2023 to align with the timelines for Choice and PrimeTime.
Parents need to provide a birth certificate and verification of where they live (like a water bill) when they first sign up and then provide immunization records once they’re offered a spot.
If there are no open spots at their neighborhood school, SDUSD will work with parents who pre-enrolled to find the nearest school with space available. The district asks parents to contact Neighborhood Schools and Enrollment Options (NSEO) at 619-260-2410 to get help.
Parents can apply for Choice to another school, but those seats will likely be limited. Dedicated Magnet schools, including Barnard, Longfellow, and Muir Language Academy, offer larger numbers of choice seats.
Note for the following year: If a student goes to another school for UTK because of overflow, they will return to their neighborhood school for kindergarten. If parents don’t want their school to change, they must apply for Choice. And if a student entered a school through Choice for UTK they don’t need to reapply for the next year.
Clarification: This post has been updated to add additional information about enrollment procedures for students moving on from UTK to kindergarten.