After-school care lacking in California's ambitious expansion of transitional kindergarten
Sara LaPietra and her husband Vince thought they’d won the childcare equivalent of the lottery. Their four-year-old son Teddy got a spot in their local school’s transitional kindergarten, or TK, class.
That meant they could stop paying $2,000 a month for his preschool, and the speech and occupational therapy Teddy receives would be on site at McKinley Elementary near Balboa Park.
Right now, the LaPietras must take time from their work day to pick up Teddy at preschool, drive him to therapy classes and then back to the preschool.
Unfortunately, the lottery ticket turned out to be a dud. While Teddy had a spot in TK, he didn’t get a spot in after-school care. That meant the LaPietras would have to pick him up from TK at 2 p.m. every day, and noon on Wednesdays — impossible given their work schedules.
“I've signed up for every possible after- school care program with the school district and we’re number 45 on the waiting list for most of those,” Sara LaPietra said. “I just feel like we've been tearing our hair out for three months trying to figure out what to do.”
She’s tried everything — signing up for private programs that pick up kids after school, local daycares to see if they’d pick up Teddy after school, churches, nannies — no luck.
Many parents here and throughout California will find themselves in the same boat as the LaPietra family in the coming years.
A new era
Starting this school year, California launched a $2.7-billion program to expand the number of kids eligible for TK, with the goal of providing TK to all 4-year-olds by 2025.
If it’s fully implemented, the plan would make California a nationwide leader in providing early childhood education. But it’s missing a crucial piece — after-school care.
After school programs are often run by outside organizations with their own staff, not public schools. Depending on the district and school, these programs may be licensed child care programs that parents pay for, or state funded enrichment and care programs. Either way, there are not enough slots to serve all students.
The San Diego Unified School District has more than doubled the number of TK classes this year to more than 185 classes across 118 schools. And the waitlists at aftercares have shot up, too. Across all the programs run by SAY San Diego, there are 2,085 kids on waitlists, almost twice as many as last year.
Staffing shortages and licensing delays mean SAY San Diego is limited in how many students it can serve, said CEO Nancy Gannon Hornberger.
“When you look at the first six years of life and rapid brain development and all of the social and cognitive growth for kids, it's a wonderful opportunity,” Gannon Hornberger said. “We also know that working parents were really looking forward to being able to enroll their children in a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. day”
Not all working parents need 12 hours of care, but many need care beyond the school day.
“It's frustrating, I know, for parents who were counting on that longer day of care,” Gannon Hornberger said. “And we're here to help them navigate to preschool or some other form of care for their TKers.”
Another problem is after-school programs are not licensed to serve kids younger than four years and nine months, but those younger kids can now be enrolled in TK, said Kim McDougal, the executive director of the San Diego YMCA Childcare Resource Services, which also runs after care programs.
She said after the state announced TK expansion, the YMCA looked at whether they could get licenses to care for younger kids at their afterschool program sites.
“But we would have to do all kinds of facilities renovation,” she said. “We would have to have child-sized toilets. We would have to have an age-appropriate playground. It would be really close to impossible for us.”
McDougal says the program should include a state-funded voucher that parents could use at preschools.
“How much money were we going to put towards TK in public schools? Put that towards the existing childcare system, put it towards supporting our existing child care providers, give more money to families to pay for that care,” McDougal said.
Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, the author of the TK expansion law, said adding after-school care would come in the future.
“One of the biggest things lacking, that we need to make sure we complete, is having universal PreK for all four-year-olds to show up at Kindergarten ready,” he said.
McCarty acknowledged there are staffing shortages and other issues, but said the expansion will take a few years. He said there are other proposals in the works, including making after school programs free for all families, not just those who are lower-income.
However, for people like LaPietra, the future is now, and McDougal said the TK expansion has created a bigger mess than it solved. She wishes lawmakers would have consulted more with childcare providers before implementing it.
“If we thought of a child and a family in this holistic way, as we should, then we would have looked at what needs to happen for a child across the whole day,” she said. “And we would have had systems that communicated with each other.”
A local solution
One local school district has taken matters into its own hands.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cajon Valley Union School District started providing free all-day care for students, even when schools were closed. Children worked on laptops and attended virtual classes, but inside a classroom, with care at the school.
When schools reopened, Superintendent David Miyashiro said he decided to continue providing free after-school care for all families who needed it. Cajon Valley partnered with local organizations and paid teachers extra to teach classes like dance and cooking after school.
“Pending some type of fiscal cliff in California, where we'd have to go into a cutting situation, we're planning to provide this for years to come,” he said.
After school is guaranteed for everyone, with no waitlists, including all new TK students. Miyashiro said other districts could offer the same, depending on their budgetary constraints and priorities.
“We've actually shared with the California Department of Education our playbook and our budgets and shared how we're doing it,” he said. “I think it is replicable.”
In the meantime, McDougal at the YMCA found a workaround solution that allowed a few more TK students to get after-school care. They are providing enrichment programs at some elementary schools until 4 p.m. to serve TK students who are too young to fall under the license.
But LaPietra doesn’t know if that will help her. She had heard that Teddy might get into an aftercare class run by the YMCA, but she’s still waiting to find out. And school starts on Monday.
California’s second largest school district, San Diego Unified, welcomed students for what may be the most normal school year since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
New details emerge about the 13 Camp Pendleton Marines killed in Kabul last year.