LA Unified has a brand new grade. Will 4-year-olds enroll?


Today Los Angeles Unified School District has opened a new grade, called universal transitional kindergarten, to all 4-year-olds. Photo by Shutterstock.

As nearly half a million Los Angeles Unified School District students head back to school today, they’re joined by a younger cohort than in the past: 4-year-olds. The district is offering universal transitional kindergarten at every public elementary school this year — in an effort to make future kindergartners more socially and academically prepared, and increase enrollment districtwide.

“This is a huge lift,” says Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships at the research organization Policy Analysis for California Education. The district is “adding a new grade to a system that has been K-12 for very many decades.”

Last school year, 317 of the district’s elementary schools offered the program to 13,800 students. This year the program is available to all children who turn 4 years old by September 1. The rollout takes place two years ahead of a California mandate that requires universal transitional kindergarten, or UTK, in all public elementary schools statewide. 

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has framed UTK as the district’s answer to low rates of literacy, numeracy and graduation. The fix, he’s argued, is “wide availability of high-quality early childhood educational programs.”

The district expects 15,000 students to enroll in transitional kindergarten programs this school year, according to the superintendent in August.

Edan Lepucki of Glassell Park found the decision to enroll her child in a free, public UTK program an easy one. 

“I feel like he’ll have a leg up,” says Lepucki, of her 4-year-old Mickey. “He'll know, ‘Oh, this is what we do. This is where we sit on the rug … and we sing this song.’ I feel like he'll be ready, emotionally, socially [for kindergarten].’”

She and her husband have had positive experiences at the elementary school where she’s now sending Mickey, which bolsters their trust in the UTK program. Plus, the private preschool she might have kept him in for an additional year was costing the couple $1,450 per month. “It’s sort of a no-brainer,” she says.

Marcus Moche, another LAUSD parent, attended the district’s schools himself, and sees enrolling his son in his neighborhood school’s UTK program as a way of supporting the public education system.

“If all of his peers who live in Highland Park attend the schools in Highland Park, I think that's a victory for those kids, and it's a victory for public schools generally,” he says. “The way that we have excellent public schools is by having everyone go there.”

But many other parents this year said “not so fast” to the district’s new grade. 

One concern: LA Unified may not be ready to fulfill its promise of a quality education to all 4-year-olds.

Danielle, an LAUSD parent and teacher who asked not to use her full name because she works for the district, decided to keep her 4-year-old in private preschool this year, despite the cost. 

“We were hesitant to see how the program is going to be developed,” she says. “If this were two or three years later, our decision might be different.”

She and other parents also expressed concerns that the district’s UTK program would over-emphasize academics.

“I'm not a big proponent of testing, especially in the early years – and over-testing,” she says, adding that she wasn’t clear on what assessments in the new grade would look like. “I don't think my kid needs to be grilled on ‘does he know his letters and sounds’ when he's 4.”

Another parent, Victoria Brand, decided to keep her 4-year-old in private preschool an extra year because of concerns over how the district will staff its new grade. The district says they have a credentialed teacher and an instructional aid for every classroom, with a student-teacher ratio of 12:1. 

Brand, who also teaches at an LAUSD elementary school, doesn’t think that will be doable. “I don't know if they're going to be able to get the staff that they need,” she says. 

“We don't have enough supervision aides or instructional aides to help in the classroom,” she added. “We budget for them every year, and then we don't have people to actually work the positions that we have. That's a big safety concern for young kids.”

Carvalho has said that the district is prepared to offer quality education to all the district’s 4-year-olds, but acknowledged that hiring teachers to staff the new grade might be difficult down the road.

“It's not going to be an issue of physical facilities, classrooms, instructional material. It’s going to be hiring the teachers, and that could conceivably be the biggest challenge,” he said in May.

Carvalho is hopeful that successful labor negotiations with the district’s two biggest unions will help with staff recruitment. Earlier this year, the district and the unions representing both teachers and school support staff reached agreements to increase pay by at least 20% over the next three years.

He’s also hopeful that LAUSD’s new grade will help the district recruit students. Today, LAUSD has fewer than 60% of the students it had when enrollment peaked 20 years ago. Fewer students means less state money for the remaining kids. 

The superintendent says he’s hoping enrollment in the district will stabilize and eventually increase in the coming years, due in part to the district’s investment in early childhood education.

“If we want them, get them young,” he said in August.

LAUSD is one of several districts in the state offering universal transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds ahead of a 2025 mandate from the state of California that all districts start UTK programs.

Gallagher, the policy expert, says the state is still working out the details. 

“The state is not fully ready,” although, she adds: “I don't know that it would be better to sit around and wait and delay rolling out until they're fully ready. At some point in time, you have to dip your toe in the water.”

For parents or family members of 3-year-olds deciding between an LAUSD UTK program and another option next year, Gallagher suggests looking at the curriculum that will be offered at your local school.

“Research has shown that younger students need their learning to be play-based most of the time,” she says, “so kids should not be doing worksheets all day.”

Gallagher also reminds parents that new transitional kindergarten classes should be well integrated with the school’s curriculum for kindergarten and first grade. 

“I [would] want to know what the expectations are for transitional kindergarten,” she says. “They should be different from the expectations for kindergarten. It shouldn't be kindergarten twice.”

She also recommends parents pay attention to the adults teaching in the classroom, and whether they specialize in educating the school’s youngest learners.

“Are the teachers who are going to be teaching my kid at transitional kindergarten … credentialed? Do they meet the requirements for teaching TK, which are different, actually, than the requirements for teaching preschool” and other lower grades.

Gallagher also recommends families make sure the program aligns with their work schedules and child care needs, as well as their cultural backgrounds. She asks, “If my student speaks a language other than English at home, how will my students' home language and culture be supported?”

Gallagher recommends parents in LAUSD seeking answers to these questions visit their local school, ask for a tour and information about the teachers and the program’s specific offerings.