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Schools scramble to find teachers as California expands transitional kindergarten

Students make their way to class for the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin on Aug. 12, 2021.
Paul Bersebach/ The Orange County Register/AP
Students make their way to class for the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin on Aug. 12, 2021.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $2.7 billion initiative to expand transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds. The state gave school districts only 13 months to prepare for the first wave of the expansion, which began this school year.

That’s not much time, especially during a pandemic and in the midst of a dire teacher shortage. School districts had to make plans for implementing the new grade, hire teachers and aides and find classrooms for the new students.

By far, staffing has been the largest challenge for districts. Statewide, districts need thousands of teachers and aides to staff transitional kindergarten classes throughout the four-year rollout of the expansion.


This year, some districts were able to meet most of their needs by moving teachers who were doing other jobs, including subbing, running reading programs or teaching other grades. Now districts are worried about finding qualified teachers for the next few years of the expansion. The scramble to find staff is also creating a domino effect on child care programs and preschools whose teachers are ideal candidates for higher-paying transitional kindergarten classrooms.

“TK is a great opportunity for students and beneficial for families as well, but the rollout is so fast that I don’t know that we have all the staffing and workforce available to meet the needs,” said Noemy Salas, senior director of Early Childhood Education Programs for the Chula Vista Elementary School District, in San Diego County. “All of the districts are hiring. We are competing for the same teachers and that is a concern.”

The California Education Department did not release guidelines for how to implement the expansion of transitional kindergarten until February of this year. Once they had the guidance, districts had to seek approval for their plans from local boards of education by June 2022 for a fall start date.

"All of the districts are hiring. We are competing for the same teachers and that is a concern."
Noemy Salas, Senior Director of Early Childhood Education Program for the Chula Vista Elementary School District

Education Deputy Superintendent Sarah Neville-Morgan said the districts had all of last year to plan for the expansion, and the multi-year rollout gives them several years to grow to meet full demand. In addition, she said her department worked directly with school districts, provided plan templates and strategized with districts about how best to expand their transitional kindergarten classes even before the guidance was released in February.

“We can completely see and understand they are feeling the pressure. They are dealing with multiple factors and trying to find staff and prepping classrooms for preschool-age children,” said Neville-Morgan, who leads the Opportunities for All Branch, which oversees the early learning and care, multilingual support and special education divisions.


“It goes back to seizing the moment. This was California’s moment to transform education.”

She points to the Education Department’s efforts to help districts prepare and launch the program, such as informational webinars, and scheduling office hours so districts could ask questions and share concerns. The department also created workgroups and design teams to plan how to best carry out the expansion, and recently created a communications tool kit to help districts outreach to community members and parents. The Education Department has also offered grants to districts for planning, implementation, renovation and new construction, and teacher training.

The expansion was bold but the execution has been arduous, said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley who also heads the Children’s Forum, which researches education issues in the state.

“Ideally, expansion will accelerate in year two as more families learn about the TK opportunity and Sacramento distributes facilities, dollars, and trains necessary teachers in steadier fashion, moving beyond a glacial pace,” Fuller said.

State education officials and legislators say the districts shouldn’t have been surprised by the expansion because it has been discussed for years.

“This is decades in the making. It’s a big deal for California, for our kids, for our education and success,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat who is the chair of the Assembly’s education finance subcommittee. McCarty authored a bill to expand transitional kindergarten that was later included in the governor’s budget.

For years McCarty and early education advocates pushed for expanding transitional kindergarten — and failed. But this time, several factors made it possible:

  • The pandemic required state officials to think differently about how to educate children who were not attending online classes or struggling academically;
  • Newsom made early education a priority and supported the expansion; 
  • Plummeting school enrollment made room for 4-year-olds on campuses;
  • Political groups and labor organizations aligned on the expansion.

“A lot of children during the pandemic stayed at home, and TK gives them a gentle onramp to our schools,” Neville-Morgan said. “Because more families kept younger children at home, we think having TK launched now creates some of those school readiness components.”

California transitional kindergarten was first offered in 2012 to 4-year-olds who turned 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 4. These children had previously enrolled in kindergarten but in 2010 a new law required children to turn 5 by Sept. 1 to enter kindergarten.

Now, with the expansion, each year of the rollout will see more children eligible to attend school based on their birth dates. By 2025-26 all 4-year-olds will be eligible.

At that point, up to 500,000 California children will be eligible to attend transitional kindergarten and more than 300,000 are likely to be enrolled, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a research organization focused on education policy and practice.

The institute estimates California will need 12,000 to 16,000 transitional kindergarten teachers and between 16,000 and 20,000 assistants for those classrooms.

There are several ways to become eligible to teach transitional kindergarten. A teacher with a multiple-subject credential with 24 units of early childhood development completed by August or a child development permit is qualified. There is also a temporary waiver available to teach for those with preschool experience, a bachelor’s degree and early childhood development credits.

In addition, the state is developing a new credential approved by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing last month. The PK-3 early learning credential will cover transitional kindergarten through third grade.

Deborah Stipek, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who is a member of the commission’s Early Childhood Credentialing workgroup, said the state is helping with staffing on several fronts: teacher preparation grant funds, the development of the new PK-3 credential, and flexible paths for potential teachers to fill the available jobs.

“I suspect that any schedule would have seemed too fast for some districts,” Stipek said. “They have a three-year runway, which seems substantial.”

There are a couple of districts further along in expanding transitional kindergarten, including San Diego Unified, which invited all 4-year-olds this year.

“We worked around the clock to get teachers in the pipeline and kids in the seats,” said Stephanie Ceminsky, director of early learning for the district. She said enrollment in transitional kindergarten more than tripled compared to last year and the district opened 189 classrooms this year.

"It goes back to seizing the moment. This was California’s moment to transform education."
Sarah Neville-Morgan, Education Deputy Superintendent

Most districts are moving more slowly with the rollout schedule.

Los Angeles Unified needed 500 teachers and aides to staff the expansion this year, said Dean Tagawa, executive director of the district’s Early Childhood Education Division. But with reassignments of current staff, Tagawa said his department only hired 20 people outside the district.

As the largest district in California, Los Angeles Unified had a roster of qualified teachers because it has several programs for kids under 5, including transitional kindergarten, state preschool classrooms, and early education centers for 2- to 4-year-olds. It also ran various programs over the years that targeted 4-year-olds for school readiness.

“It was like we just kept moving,” Tagawa said. “It wasn’t as challenging and we had the teachers already.”

For other districts, it has been tougher and there is still anxiety about finding enough teachers.

Sacramento City Unified has 346 kids enrolled, said Aida Buelna, transitional kindergarten administrator for the district. It has 19 transitional kindergarten classrooms, up from 10 before the expansion. Buelna said the district plans to add another 15 to 19 classrooms next fall.

“There was no way we were going to be able to do this all at once,” Buelna said. “For next year, we want to start hiring early.”

At Chula Vista, finding teachers for the dual language immersion transitional kindergarten classrooms, where students are taught in two languages, has been even more challenging because they require an extra certification, Salas said.

In the process of building out transitional kindergarten, Salas lost at least 10 instructional aides working in the district’s preschool program. Now, she’ll have to fill those jobs, too.

"You are going to see that every new year — staff leaving preschool to go to transitional kindergarten."
Rita Palet, Executive Director of Early Education Programs and Services for the San Diego County Office of Education

To find qualified teachers and assistants, districts are looking directly at the legion of child care and preschool teachers already working with 4-year-olds at private and nonprofit preschools and child care centers. Some programs have lost teachers and aides to districts, which pay more and offer summers off and pension plans, and preschool and child care providers are worried about losing even more as districts need more teachers in the next few years.

“They are the best ones to be teaching TK but it’s leading to stress on both sides,” said Rita Palet, executive director of early education programs and services for the San Diego County Office of Education. “You are going to see that every new year — staff leaving preschool to go to transitional kindergarten.”

Palet and other education officials say they support early education teachers who want to make the switch. But they say they feel as though the state didn’t take into account how difficult it would be for child care and preschool programs to fill the gaps left by departing staff and students.

“We have highly institutionalized state preschool and Head Start programs. You can’t just move those kids and move those teachers instantly without doing real damage,” Fuller said. “I don’t think anybody thought through how slowly those tectonic plates, that are interrelated, would be moving.”

Neville-Morgan and McCarty said recent increases in the reimbursement rates the state pays providers for child care and preschool for low-income children should help with hiring and retention. But advocates and providers say the increased rates are not enough to meet state staffing requirements for younger children, who require more adults per child than 4-year-olds.

In California, the typical center-based preschool teacher with a bachelor’s degree earns about $42,600 a year compared to $84,700 for a transitional kindergarten teacher, according to a June study by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.

The center found that nearly half of all preschool teachers have a bachelor’s degree or higher and three-quarters have a child development permit. The center has been advocating for an expedited certification pathway for preschool teachers based on a similar process for private school teachers who are able to get a multiple-subject credential without attending a preparation program, said Elena Montoya, senior researcher at the UC Berkeley center.

“Teachers who might leave their work in a preschool to go work in TK may love their job and love what they are doing,” said Montoya. “But they may have to make this choice because their wages are not enough to subsist on.”