California’s 4-year-olds face a huge decision with transitional kindergarten

Students play with bubbles on the playground.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning. It’s Tuesday, May 7. This is Jenny Gold. I cover early childhood education for The Times. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Transitional Kindergarten vs. preschool, explained

Parents of young children across California are facing a big decision right now: Should they keep their kids in preschool next year, or should they give the state’s newly expanding Transitional Kindergarten, or TK, a try?

TK — California’s $2.7-billion initiative to offer families an extra year of free public education — will be open next year to all children who turn 4 by June 2. At LAUSD, all children who turn 4 by Sept. 1 are already eligible. The program is causing great concern for the rest of the child-care industry.

But the state does not currently evaluate what goes on in individual TK classrooms, and information on what they look like can vary greatly by district and even individual schools.


“We’ve told parents that this is one of the most important times of their kid’s life, but we’ve left this information vacuum,” said Anna Markowitz, a professor at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies.

So we at the L.A. Times early education team decided to dig in and share everything parents might want to know about Transitional Kindergarten.

Transitional Kindergarten is free. For some parents, this may be all they need to know. Unlike private preschool programs — which cost a median of $14,766 per year in L.A. County — TK is free.

The problem: TK may include as little as three hours a day of care, leaving families to fend for themselves after that. Some districts — including LAUSD — offer longer hours, in addition to after-care programs. Other districts may bus students to private after-care centers. But these extended-care options usually require additional fees, and slots may be limited. Some families may decide that keeping their children in a full-day preschool program is the more practical option.

TK classrooms generally have more students than the average preschool class. Classes max out at 24 students and must be supervised by two adults, one of whom must be a fully certified TK teacher — a 12-to-1 student-to-adult ratio. California state preschool classrooms, on the other hand, have a ratio of 8 to 1.

Teachers in a TK classroom generally have more education than preschool teachers, including a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential, though these degrees do not necessarily prepare them to teach 4-year-olds. By 2025, TK teachers also will need to have 24 units of early childhood education or development.


Preschool teachers, on the other hand, may have fewer years of education but more experience teaching young children.

TK classrooms often expect a higher degree of independence from students, which may be challenging for younger children. TK does not offer a nap, for example, and most provide minimal assistance with toileting. In contrast, most preschools still provide naps, diapering and other toileting assistance to the same age group.

TK programs in California (like preschools) are supposed to teach to the California Preschool Learning Foundations, which were created by the Department of Education. By the age of 5, children in both types of programs are supposed to learn how to:

  • Regulate their feelings and impulses more consistently
  • Participate positively and effectively in a group
  • Write their own name nearly correctly
  • Know more than half of uppercase letters and lowercase letters.
  • Solve simple addition and subtraction problems

So how do I pick?

Available hours, schedule details and costs end up being the deciding factors for many families. But classroom style and curriculum also are important.

Discerning parents often can set up a visit to a TK classroom to try to figure out how things are working in their own district.

Jade Jenkins, a professor of education at UC Irvine, advises that parents seeking a developmentally appropriate classroom look for a lot of open space, group tables instead of desks, and an environment that is mostly dedicated to allowing kids to explore independently. Sensory areas and activities such as a play kitchen or dress-up corner are good indications of a play-based program. Folders packed with worksheets are not. Classrooms should ideally have their own bathroom and access to the outside.

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team

Jenny Gold, education reporter
Christian Orozco, assistant editor
Stephanie Chavez, deputy metro editor
Karim Doumar, head of newsletters

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