California’s $2.7 Billion Plan for Transitional Kindergarten: Impact on School Facilities

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When Thomas Pace, who oversees school facilities in San Bernardino City Unified, thinks about all the construction needed at schools in his district, he finds it challenging to make the numbers work.

Many existing kindergarten classrooms in the district don’t meet state standards. Now, they’re getting ready to add another grade for young children: transitional kindergarten (TK).

In 2021, California started a $2.7 billion plan to offer TK to all 4-year-olds by the 2025-2026 school year, aiming to create the largest free preschool program in the country.

But school districts like Pace’s are struggling to build or modify facilities suitable for these new young learners.

Why it’s tough and costly?

San Bernardino City Unified is finishing up using $250 million in bond money raised over a decade ago for school improvements.

“All of the specialized space is highly expensive, and for those school districts that lack the local resources, we struggle to make those improvements on a grand scale,” Pace said.

State requirements for new TK classrooms (and kindergarten classrooms) are different than those of typical classrooms. 4-year-olds need space to play, indoors and outdoors, and they need supervision when going to the bathroom, which means having a restroom inside the classroom or close by.

In San Bernardino, 150 of the 190 early education classrooms don’t meet those standards, Pace said.

A recent analysis of state data found most districts reported having classroom space for early learners, but a third had concerns about facilities, including square footage, bathrooms, and outdoor play areas.

In 2022, California expanded a grant program to help school districts build or renovate TK classrooms. Through two rounds of funding, the state has given out $585.9 million.

But the program requires school districts to provide matching funds at the local level, which can be difficult for lower-resourced districts.

Last month, the governor in his May revised budget cut more than half a billion dollars for that program. Lawmakers are considering putting a statewide bond on the ballot in November.

Why learning environments matter?

Space is important for young children, because they learn through play. Susan Samarge-Powell, director of early learning at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, said, “It’s about moving around, they’re moving all day long. And so having that space to afford them that ability is a big deal.”

Restrooms are also important because four-year-olds don’t have the same bladder control as older kids.

When bathrooms aren’t inside the classroom, it leads to more “transition” time, with kids having to line up to go to the bathroom or walk down the hall. This can lead to less learning time and more behavioral issues.

How the state helps?

The California Department of Education is advising local school districts on best practices for arranging child-sized furniture and making classrooms appropriate for 4-year-olds. They also have a toolkit on helping kids go to the bathroom.

A study found children who attended TK in California had stronger literacy and math skills when entering kindergarten than kids who didn’t attend the program.

The goal is to give more children access to TK to set them up for success later in life.

What districts without local funds do?

San Bernardino City Unified got some funding from the state grant program to help build an early learning center, but that would be for just seven classrooms across a large district. The district didn’t apply for another round because they didn’t have enough local money for a match.

Fontana Unified School District applied for more than $23 million but hasn’t received any of it. The district is looking to put TK classrooms in seven schools.

Alan Reising, business services administrator with Long Beach Unified, said districts will have to re-prioritize their local dollars to make do with what they have.

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