teacher wearing a pink shirt and a mask stands over transitional kindergarten student reading a nature book in the classroom
Tamila Jackson, transitional kindergarten teacher at Sankofa United Elementary, works with her students on a lesson about nature. Credit: Amir Aziz

On a recent weekday morning at Sankofa United Elementary School, two dozen 4-year-olds put on costumes, built block towers as tall as themselves, and drew artistic creations on an easel, as teacher Tamila Jackson went from group to group to encourage her students’ play. 

It’s the first time in a school setting for many of the students, who’ve spent about half their lives in a pandemic. When Jackson corralls them to go outside for recess, some are still learning how to make an orderly line. They’ve made significant improvement over the first two weeks of school however, assures Jackson. 

Sankofa United is one of five elementary schools in Oakland Unified School District that introduced a transitional kindergarten program this year as part of an expansion, sometimes referred to as “universal TK,” that will eventually accommodate all 4-year-olds. 

“When we think about the fact that not only at Sankofa United, but across the state, a significantly bigger number of young students will have this opportunity, we’re looking at a completely different experience with kindergarten readiness,” said Dennis Guikema, the principal at Sankofa United.

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 who would turn 5 by Dec. 2 could enroll in kindergarten for that year; after that, 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 2025-2026 school year, when all 4-year-olds, no matter when their birthday falls, will be eligible. This year, students who will turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Feb. 1 are eligible.

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.  

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Transitional kindergarten students at Sankofa United create art during a lesson about nature. Credit: Amir Aziz

“Sometimes I don’t think that parents or caregivers in general understand how significant it is for us to intervene super early because we can catch problems and find support for things,” Jackson said. “And if we do that, by the time they get to kindergarten, and we’re expecting them to sit down and retain information, they’ve already had at least one year of trying to implement those strategies and learning their own learning style.”

While preschool largely centers on play as a way of learning, transitional kindergarten is more structured and uses a curriculum, while also introducing routines, like lining up or cleaning up your space. In May, the OUSD school board approved the adoption of a new curriculum called Creative Curriculum for TK.

Jackson, who is in her first year of teaching transitional kindergarten after previously teaching preschool and elementary school, said the most challenging part of this year has been getting her students to follow safety procedures. For many of them, all of whom will turn 5 between now and Feb. 1, this is their first school experience because of the pandemic.

“Most people put their kids in school at about 2 to 3, so a lot of them weren’t in school at all,” Jackson said. “And when they were old enough, their parents decided it was too scary, so a lot of them either did pods or stayed at home.”

Enrollment numbers for the 2022-2023 school year are still fluctuating, but at the end of the first week of school, OUSD had 675 students enrolled in transitional kindergarten, up from 585 last year. Next year, OUSD is projecting to enroll more than 1,000. The district received additional one-time funding from the state to support the expansion, which went to things like furnishing new classrooms and renovating existing buildings, like the former Kaiser Elementary School, which reopened this fall as Kaiser Early Childhood Center

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Backpacks and other belongings sit in a cubby wall in Tamila Jackson’s transitional kindergarten class at Sankofa United. Credit: Amir Aziz

Along with Sankofa and Kaiser, Oakland Academy of Knowledge, Korematsu Discovery Academy, and Bridges Academy added new transitional kindergarten programs this year, and there are 40 schools across the district with programs. Christie Herrera, OUSD’s executive director of early learning, said that when deciding where to place a new program, she looks at what neighborhoods lack a transitional kindergarten class, and have an existing early childhood center with eligible 4-year-olds. 

Sankofa United has an early childhood center on campus, so placing a transitional kindergarten program there allows families to stay at the same site for preschool, transitional kindergarten, and kindergarten to fifth grade.

“This is bridging what’s been a little bit of a gap between preschool and kindergarten for kids in the age range that TK serves,” said Guikema, whose daughter is enrolled in the transitional kindergarten program at his school. “It’s going to give us a chance to do work that is developmentally appropriate for the kids in that age gap.”

The statewide expansion comes with new qualifications for transitional kindergarten teachers, which could lead to a narrower pool of teacher candidates in Oakland and elsewhere, said Tontra Love, an instructional coach for transitional kindergarten teachers in OUSD. Preschool teachers, who have experience working with that age group, may not have the teaching credential required for transitional kindergarten, while kindergarten teachers who do have a credential may not have the early childhood education credits that will be required for transitional kindergarten teachers beginning next year, Love said. 

“It’s a really small pool of where TK teachers can be drawn from,” she added. Her role includes convening the three dozen transitional kindergarten teachers for professional development and sharing best practices. Another aspect has been helping the teachers find opportunities to obtain the 24 required credits in early childhood education. 

As transitional kindergarten grows in OUSD, there will be more opportunities for teachers to collaborate. Unlike in most grades, where there are typically two or three teachers per grade who can work together, there’s usually only one transitional kindergarten class and teacher per campus, said Bernadette Zermeno, another instructional coach who focuses on transitional kindergarten at OUSD’s dual immersion schools. 

“From my own experience, it becomes pretty isolating when you don’t have a co-teacher to plan with or share struggles with,” said Zermeno, who previously taught transitional kindergarten. “We’re super excited to be able to bring TK teachers together and have a place to support each other and talk about vomit and boogers and Play-Doh.”

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 an OUSD program. 

“If you look at the struggles that our high school students are having and you plan backwards, what we can give them in the early years can really change that trajectory for kids that struggle,” Love said. “I am so happy that our state is taking it seriously and that Oakland is pushing the envelope and is kind of ahead of the curve.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.