On a Tuesday morning at Malcolm X Elementary School, 21 children counted ice cream flavors and traced their names in Play-Doh with the encouragement of teacher May Lynne Gill.
It’s the first time in school for many of the 4- and 5-year-old students in Berkeley Unified’s transitional kindergarten program, which exposes kids to letters and counting, prepares them for the structure of kindergarten and teaches them how to play nice.
The morning passed in a flurry of activities, each lasting under 15 minutes to accommodate the children’s attention spans. In between the lessons, students waddled like penguins and swam like polar bears during a dance break, and before lunch, they had 20 minutes or so of free-choice play, where some chose magnetic building blocks and others played with beads. Along the way, they practiced asking their classmates for help (rolling a Play-Doh snake can be hard!) and apologizing if they “made a red choice” instead of a “green choice.”
Malcolm X is one of seven elementary schools in Berkeley Unified School District with a transitional kindergarten program. Initially designed for older 4-year-olds on the verge of turning 5, the program, called “universal TK,” began expanding this year and will eventually accommodate all 4-year-olds.
“It’s an expansion of public education. It means that there is more access to high-quality education universally than our state has previously been able to offer,” said Alexander Hunt, principal of Malcolm X Elementary.
School is not mandatory in California until a child is 6 years old. Transitional kindergarten was introduced in the state in 2012 after the Kindergarten Readiness Act adjusted the birthday cutoff for kindergarten. Previously, 4-year-olds could enroll in kindergarten as long as they were set to turn 5 by Dec. 2; beginning in 2012, the birthday deadline was moved up to Sept. 1. Transitional kindergarten was created for those students with birthdays between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, who were no longer eligible for traditional kindergarten.
The birthday range for transitional kindergarten will continue to expand until the 2025-26 school year, when all 4-year-olds, no matter when their birthday falls, will be eligible. This year, students turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Feb. 1 are eligible. Over the next few years, that month will gradually grow to include all 4-year-olds.
The expansion is part of a statewide effort to invest in early childhood education, which experts say can be crucial to eliminating achievement gaps and producing better outcomes for children once they reach kindergarten. A 2017 study evaluating the first few years of California’s transitional kindergarten program showed that students had better early literacy and math skills compared with students who’d only gone to preschool, especially at the start of kindergarten.
“All of the early intervention that we do is what pays off in the long run,” Hunt said.
In Berkeley, Hunt believes most families already send their children to preschool. Transitional kindergarten is still a positive development in Berkeley, he said, but it will have the biggest impact in parts of the state where that’s not the case.
BUSD currently offers early childhood education to low-income families at three preschools. Families who need child care but don’t qualify for a BUSD preschool must pay for a private preschool or other daycare services. There is a range of private preschools in Berkeley, from more structured programs to those focusing almost entirely on play and exploration like the Forest School.
Transitional kindergarten, on the other hand, will be free for all families.
Next year, Hunt’s own daughter will be eligible for transitional kindergarten, thanks to the new birthday cut-off date. Hunt plans to enroll her in TK because he thinks the program provides a high-quality, age-appropriate education with a credentialed teacher. (Preschool teachers are not required to be credentialed.) It will mean one less transition for his youngest child, and all three of his children can attend the same school next year.
While preschool largely centers on play as a way of learning, transitional kindergarten is more structured and more academic, while also introducing routines, like lining up or cleaning up your space. BUSD’s TK program also provides instructional aides and additional aides for students with disabilities who need them.
Transitional kindergarten is an ‘equalizer’
Gill’s curriculum doesn’t follow a predetermined program: It’s the product of years of iteration, though this year, BUSD is trying out a math curriculum for transitional kindergarteners from San Francisco Unified School District.
Cherilynn Abaye, an instructional aide who works alongside Gill, is called Ms. Cherry by the kids. She helps keep the students focused during class, sprinkling encouragement to stay focused or keep working on their Play-Doh letters with displays of affection. When one student pushes another in the lunch line, it’s Abaye who pulls the student aside to right the wrong and elicit an apology.
To Gill, what’s most important is that kids “learn how to be compassionate, be patient, speak nicely.” “They just want to be loved,” she said. “They just want to be talked to and listened to.”
Gill thinks opening transitional kindergarten up to younger students will be a challenge.
Already, students come to transitional kindergarten with vastly different abilities: Some already know how to read and count to 10, while others are just beginning to recognize letters. In this way, transitional kindergarten acts as an “equalizer,” Gill said, “exposing [some kids] to basic concepts” for the first time. In response, Gill has to provide more different versions of many lessons based on students’ abilities.
As younger students enter her classroom, she expects she will have to change her curriculum to accommodate the age difference. “We’ll have to give up a lot,” she said. “It won’t be age appropriate anymore.”
Gill, who is in her ninth year of teaching transitional kindergarten and 19th year of teaching overall, said that over time, the curriculum has become more academic and more structured. The kindergarten curriculum has, to some extent, crept into transitional kindergarten, though the younger students do still get more time to play.
But even Gill isn’t so sure that transitional kindergarten is appropriate for the youngest 4-year-olds, who she thinks need more play time.
Enrollment in transitional kindergarten fluctuated during the pandemic, but rose to 156 students this year. In 2020, when BUSD offered only remote learning for most of the school year, 81 students were enrolled in transitional kindergarten. In 2021, the number climbed to 101 students.
BUSD currently offers eight sections of transitional kindergarten at Malcolm X, Slyvia Mendez, Washington, Cragmont, Ruth Acty and Rosa Parks. New this year is a transitional kindergarten class at Berkeley Arts Magnet.
Ultimately, educators are optimistic that investments at earlier ages can lead to higher achievements in later years. By 2025, when transitional kindergarten will be accessible to all 4-year-olds, hundreds more will be able to enroll in a BUSD program. The school district expects to add four more transitional kindergarten classrooms over the next few years.