SAN MARCOS — New state eligibility requirements will allow more children this fall to enter transitional kindergarten in the San Marcos Unified School District, which plans to steadily increase eligibility over the next three years to achieve the state’s goal of universal early education.
While the district’s transitional kindergarten program was open only to children who turn age five by December 2, the age cutoff for this school year now extends to February 2.
The eligibility window will gradually widen each year until fall 2025 when all four-year-olds can enroll in transitional kindergarten in San Marcos Unified.
While some families may opt to keep their children in private preschools or at home until they are ready for kindergarten, the state-mandated change offers a cost-free alternative for many families seeking free early childhood education.
With this expanded eligibility, transitional kindergarten enrollment for the 2022-23 school year across the district’s 10 elementary and K-8 schools has increased from last year by around 30%, or 83 students, according to district spokeswoman Amy Ventetuolo.
However, this number is subject to change until school begins in mid-August and sites see how many students attend.
“We’re expecting a little bit of an increase, but who knows — with TK or K, we don’t really know for sure until the school year starts,” said Deputy Superintendent Tiffany Campbell. “Anyone who wants to be here, we expect to see them.”
The California Department of Education announced this timeline for the gradual expansion of transitional kindergarten last year, mandating it for all school districts in the state that offer kindergarten.
While transitional kindergarten is not compulsory, it can provide early learners with valuable preparation for kindergarten and first grade, combining foundations from preschool and kindergarten. By making it available for free through public schools, state leaders hope to expand these opportunities to more children, especially those not already enrolled in other early education programs like private preschools.
“Depending on where they are, the entrance into kindergarten could be jumping into cold water, or it could be a smoother transition. Kids learn how to share, learn how to work together, all of those things. It’s a lot of those intangibles that you don’t even think about, that you think they just know how to do, but they are taught,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of social skills building, but also getting them ready for word recognition and numbers sense. All elements to prepare them for their compulsory first-grade education.”
San Marcos parent Sandra Michel said her four-year-old daughter is at a stage in her development where she would benefit greatly from a transitional kindergarten program. However, since her daughter does not meet the district’s age cutoff this year, their family will send her to preschool three days a week and costly daycare on the other days.
“We couldn’t believe the prices to a couple of preschools that we toured,” Michel said, noting that she would love to send her daughter to the San Marcos Unified program instead. “Absolutely, I would enroll her. She’s at a stage in her development where she’s curious about learning to write her name; when reading books, she wants to know what the words say.”
San Marcos Unified has offered transitional kindergarten as part of a two-year kindergarten program since 2011, putting them in a more favorable position than other districts starting from scratch to meet the new requirements.
Cindy Pacino is part of the founding group of teachers that implemented the district’s transitional kindergarten program over a decade ago. With a lack of existing curriculum at the time, Pacino got to work creating her own, writing six books, including a book about the first day of transitional kindergarten to read to students.
“As teachers, we always want to purchase grade-specific books and picture books for our students, and there weren’t any, so that’s why I wrote one,” she said.
Pacino now works as the district’s transitional kindergarten lead and a classroom teacher at La Costa Meadows Elementary School. She expects the program’s expansion to bring significant changes to the district, with more teachers and aides allocated to transitional kindergarten as enrollment expands.
Staffing requirements vary drastically between the two kindergarten levels, with a ratio of one adult per 12 students required for transitional kindergarten versus one adult per 24 students in the second year. Transitional kindergarten teachers also need to have early education credits under their belt in addition to regular teaching credentials.
The arrival of younger four-year-olds in the classroom means the district must also revisit all its teaching standards for transitional kindergarten, Pacino said.
“We’ll be adding more standards, if not changing the existing standards because that’s a very large gap in 48-month and 60-month-olds,” Pacino said. “Especially the social and emotional components, that is a very large gap in development. Next year, when our window rolls out to six months of the year, we’ll have so many more children that are so much younger that will have so many more social and emotional needs that we’ll need to meet.”
The only guidance the state currently provides is to merge preschool learning foundations with kindergarten standards so that the districts will do much of the work.
“Unless we get more guidance, we’ll continue to develop our own standards. All the districts are in the same predicament, where we have to make our own,” Pacino said.
Preparing for growth
This year, the school district will offer transitional kindergarten in a.m. and p.m. sessions during the day.
At La Costa Meadows, principal Mandy Bedard said this would be the first year they have two transitional kindergarten classes rather than just one. Other than that, preparations for the new young students involve figuring out schedules for recess and lunch and special schedules offering music and physical education programs.
“We decided to have an a.m. and p.m. class, and we’re moving them into a larger room, so we have a larger shared space for the TK program,” Bedard said. “We’ve been full of excitement this year. For us, it’s really been a matter of, ‘how are our [classrooms] impacted, and how can we best support these incoming kids knowing they’ll be younger?’”
While this year’s increase in students will be modest, San Marcos Unified leaders anticipate enrollment to grow as eligibility expands and as word about the new birthday cutoff continues to spread, especially to families who do not already have kids in the district.
“I anticipate that we’re going to see the numbers increase for various reasons. I think the parents who have historically paid for private preschool are going to realize, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity to get my kids into these schools they’re gonna attend,’” Bedard said. “We’re really excited to be able to provide this for our community, to provide this equity and access.”
While many parents are grateful for the option of free transitional kindergarten, many still face the need for childcare before and after school due to their demanding work schedules. Some school sites in San Marcos Unified offer an extended daycare program called Kids on Campus, which provides supervised care from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on school days.
Parent Nicole Crozier enrolled her newly eligible four-year-old in transitional kindergarten and Kids on Campus at La Costa Meadows for the upcoming school year. However, she was left scrambling upon learning the school’s extended daycare program would no longer be offered at the site due to low enrollment.
“Both [of us] parents work full time and were looking forward to public TK and childcare with the costs of living,” Crozier said. “After much complaining, they did offer us an intradistrict transfer to another school that had childcare available.”
Ventetuolo said La Costa Meadows discontinued its half-day KOC program for the fall, but will continue to offer the full-day option.
By the time all four-year-olds in California are eligible in 2026, the number of students in transitional kindergarten classrooms statewide is expected to grow from around 100,000 to 600,000.
More information about transitional kindergarten in the San Marcos Unified School District is available at smusd.org/tk.