In summary

The opportunity to provide transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds will fill a critical equity gap toward accessing early education.

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By Steven Kellner, Special to CalMatters

Steven Kellner is a former school superintendent who now works for California Education Partners, a nonprofit organization.

On a Tuesday evening in May, third-grade teacher Clara Yanez and second-grade teacher Jackie Gonzalez stood in front of their board of education and asked them to count little plastic farm animals. 

While not a typical agenda item at Buttonwillow Union Elementary School, this exercise in “counting collections” was a way for these teachers to show board members the building blocks of coherence from preschool to third grade. Counting is essential to all years of early math, and this lesson design helps breakdown barriers that separate the grade levels. 

Common classroom practices are an important first step in creating a collaborative environment where teachers and students benefit from a consistency between grade levels. 

The biggest challenges in any school district come at transition points – from building to building or grade to grade. Through this exercise, the board experienced one aspect of coherence, which on a larger level involves connecting the dots from the classroom to the principal’s office to the board room so that all aspects of a district are working together to create the best environment for students. 

Today, we’re facing challenging transition points requiring solid connections. The investment of nearly $3 billion over the next four years is a watershed event in California public education. With the recall election behind us, we can now begin planning knowing the governor’s education agenda is secure.

Creating a 14th grade in our public schools is a game changer, especially for students who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes and students who are English Learners. But the promise of transitional kindergarten will fall short if it is created as a stand-alone program across California’s 1,000 school districts. 

Although high-quality education for 4-year-olds is difficult to access even in the state’s largest districts located in densely populated urban centers, most of California’s districts are small, less than 2,500 students, and located in rural areas, further compounding the challenge of early education options. Since many of these districts are often the community’s largest employer, the opportunity to provide transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds will fill a critical equity gap toward accessing early education across California.

Districts across the state are already working to strengthen connections between grades for all students preschool to third grade and embracing adjustments to their systems to make this possible. 

In Monterey Peninsula Unified, teachers from preschool to third grade along with principals and district administrators engaged in a collaborative book study focused on early math practices. The Sausalito-Marin City Elementary District bridged gaps for students by creating an improvement team connecting teachers, administrators, county office of education staff with two nonprofit early education providers to lead this work.

While individual districts can do this important work for our youngest learners in isolation, we know that educators are stronger together. Since June 2020, through a year of almost entirely distance learning, nine California districts connected, collaborated and supported each other toward building an academic and structural bridge between preschool and third grade. 

These district teams met virtually to share classroom practices and promising data on successes, challenges and roadblocks. Despite differences in size and geography, these districts shared a dedication to better serve socioeconomically disadvantaged and emerging bilingual students.  

Back in Buttonwillow, board members successfully grouped their plastic farm animals into groups of threes and fours to complete the lesson. Although this activity alone won’t create coherence, Yanez and Gonzalez both expressed that they were glad the board members had a tangible example of how teachers work together across grade levels.

“Even in our small district it is important to give our board members a connection to the student experience,” they remarked. Stuart Packard, superintendent at Buttonwillow noted that the board presentation was “an opportunity for our teacher-leaders to showcase their quality teamwork over the past year. Their perseverance to continue the focus on coherence even during distance learning was commendable.”

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