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Sonoma Valley Unified School District to offer free transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds

Responding to a key element in California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $123.9 billion public education package, Sonoma Valley Unified School District will begin phasing in a plan this fall that will offer free, full-day transitional kindergarten classes for all 4-year-old children by the 2025-26 school year.

“Transitional kindergarten [TK, aka universal transitional kindergarten] is offered to students who turn 5 during the academic year and are too young for kindergarten,” said Monica Fong, coordinator of educational services and preschool coordinator for the school district. “It is meant to be a bridge between preschool and kindergarten.”

Many education experts contend that because so much brain development happens before age 5, it makes sense to emphasize education during these formative years. But children who don’t meet the age requirement (5 years old) or are unprepared for kindergarten must wait a full school year before entering the academic world.

A study by American Institutes for Research in 2017 showed that California’s TK system had a positive impact on children. It “gives students an advantage at kindergarten entry on a range of literacy and mathematics skills,” the study said, adding that “students were also rated as more engaged by their teachers, compared to their peers.”

The expansion of the SVUSD transitional kindergarten, which will include six hours of classroom learning, will also be a boon to many families.

“It is exciting to know that full-day TK, with the option for aftercare until 6 p.m., will provide a full year of prekindergarten learning and care for families in SVUSD,” Fong said. “This will enable working parents with young children to eliminate one full year of child care costs.”

During the 2021-22 academic year, SVUSD children who turned 5 on or before Dec. 2, 2021 were eligible for TK. In 2022-23, eligibility will be expanded by two months to include all children who turn 5 by Feb. 2, 2023.

The window will continue to be expanded by two months — to April 2, 2024 in 2023-24 and to June 2, 2025 in 2024-25. In 2025-26, TK will be available to all children who turn 5 by Sept. 1, 2026, so all children who are 4 years old on Sept. 1, 2025 will be eligible to attend.

Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) will provide a transitional kindergarten classroom at El Verano, Prestwood and Sassarini elementary schools. The collective student enrollment in TK classrooms was 36 in 2021-22 and is expected to increase to 38 in 2022-23, 45 in 2023-24, 54 in 2024-25 and 63 in 2025-26.

The TK program is part of SVUSD’s universal prekindergarten plan, which was approved unanimously by the board of trustees at their meeting on May 17.

TK enrollment will be centralized by the district to maintain stand-alone classes and avoid having to combine TK classes with other classes at the three schools.

The district plans to assign California State Preschool Programs qualified teachers and TK qualified teachers to the classrooms.

Projected enrollment in each of SVUSD’s TK classrooms is 15 to 18, with 20 being the maximum allowed for the 2022-23 school year. All California school districts will be required to maintain a 1:12 staff to student ratio. This will be changed to 1:10 beginning in 2023-24.

Fong says that SVUSD will satisfy these required ratios.

“Right now, we have our TK classrooms staffed,” she said. “If we need to hire more pre-K or TK teachers, we will take that step.”

She says it’s unclear if SVUSD’s declining enrollment will affect its TK expansion plans.

“But right now, our three TK classrooms are close to capacity, so we know that there is a community need for these rooms,” Fong said.

SVUSD serves as a Local Education Agency (LEA), a government agency that supervises the provision of instruction or educational services to members of the community. California law does not require LEAs to offer full-day learning in their TK programs, but they need to provide access to learning and care that, combined, provide a full day of programming that meets community needs.

The Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, North Bay Children’s Center and 4Cs have been contacted regarding the possible inclusion of the TK program in SVUSD’s Extended Learning Opportunity as well as After School Education and Safety programs.

Also, eligible TK students and their families will be able to participate in nine-hour extended learning and care opportunities.

As the TK plan is phased in, an increasing number of parents with 4-year-olds will be able to enroll them in a TK classroom or opt for one of the district’s preschools. Prestwood and El Verano’s preschool programs are funded by the California State Preschool Programs.

Prestwood, which established its program in 2016, hosts one three-hour class in the morning and in the afternoon, both for 16 students, five days per week. El Verano, which began its preschool program in 2008, offers one three-hour morning class and one three-hour afternoon class, both for 24 students, five days each week.

Sassarini features a full-day, six-hour preschool program for 24 students that is partly funded by the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.

A Head Start preschool program is offered at Flowery Elementary school and a 4Cs program is offered at El Verano and Sassarini. Head Start and 4Cs have their own admission criteria that is based on family demographics and is not set by SVUSD.

As more children attend TK, there will be more spots for 3-year-old children in the preschool programs. They can also attend the Head Start and 4Cs programs if they satisfy the admission requirements.

Fong emphasizes the importance of TK and other preschool education.

“Prekindergarten programs provide a safe, healthy, reliable, stimulating, culturally and linguistically appropriate environment that actively involves children in acquiring the skills needed to succeed in school,” she said. “We want our children to develop problem-solving skills, independence, perseverance and the skills to work positively and respectfully with others.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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