Schools prepare to roll out universal pre-K

Sulphur Springs Union School District administrative offices.
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Children ages 3 to 5 will have greater opportunities to learn and prepare for their futures as local school districts across California seek to develop and receive funds for universal prekindergarten under the state Department of Education.  

Almost a year after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 130, as part of the state’s $123.9 billion pre-K and K-12 education package in 2021, school districts are finalizing plans to implement and expand prekindergarten and transitional kindergarten programs for young children, regardless of background. 

What is UPK? 

According to the state Department of Education, UPK is an umbrella term that includes various early-learning programs such as the California State Preschool Program, TK, Head Start, any district and local community-based preschool programs, learning services for students with disabilities, private-pay preschool and expanded learning options. 

The stated purpose of UPK is for California to serve more of its children ages 3 to 4 by providing free, “high-quality” preschool programs and learning experiences the year before kindergarten.  

“California is leveling the playing field by finally achieving universal pre-kindergarten,” said Newsom during a press conference last year when he announced the signing of AB130. “California’s children will have access to crucial high-quality instruction by age 4. We are reducing class sizes, supporting pre-k educators and investing in more preschool facilities to ensure our students get off to a strong start.” 

Parents will be able to choose how their 3- to 4-year-olds receive an early education. So, parents can enroll children in their local school district’s UPK program, other private services, a combination of programs or even decide to opt out of any early education program until their child turns 6, which, by then, a child is required by law to be enrolled in school. 

UPK will begin incrementally in the 2022-23 school year with full implementation by the 2025-26 school year, according to the state Department of Education’s website. 

This upcoming school year, parents are eligible to enroll their child for TK if they turn 5 years old between Sept. 2 and Feb. 2. Age eligibility will change each year until the 2025-26 school year, when parents can enroll their children who turn 4 years old by Sept. 1 in TK. 

Local districts set plans, goals 

AB130 requires any local education agency, often referred to as LEA, that operates a kindergarten program to also provide a transitional kindergarten program for all 4-year-old children by 2025-26. As required by law, Santa Clarita Valley school districts are set to outline how to create UPK programs.  

Dee Jaimison, assistant superintendent of educational services of the Newhall School District, alongside Superintendent Jeff Pelzel, began with a cohort of district-level staff to unpack the state requirements and expectations for UPK. 

“We had a very diverse group of educators coming together to determine the very best way to move forward with this programming for our 4-year olds,” Jaimison said.  

Jaimison said they would obtain feedback from stakeholders and collaborate with their expanded learning opportunities program extension partner, ACES, which is an after-school program provider. 

Kate Peattie, director of instruction, assessment and accountability, said they would include aspects for recruitment and professional development in their UPK plan. 

“As you can imagine the staff piece of UPK, that alone, is quite a challenge,” Peattie said. “Not all teachers in the Newhall School District can automatically teach UPK. They need to have additional early childhood education units in order to do that or have already been grandfathered through our district.” 

According to Peattie, of the 327 Newhall teachers, there are not many who are eligible.  

“We are partnering with other entities, universities and colleges; (College of the Canyons) for example is one, and we are trying to create pathways and advertise that getting those ECE [early childhood education] units will absolutely help as the ratio gets smaller and we need more and more teachers.” 

Peattie said they would outline curriculum instruction and assessment for UPK, too.  

“One thing to point out is when we initially started TK in the mid 2010s, there was a transitional period but the thing we noticed is we weren’t gaining any additional students,” Jaimison said. “We were just pulling [students] away from kindergarten and putting them in a TK model where they had two years of kindergarten, but now we’re actually taking on more students onto our campuses.” 

Jaimison said they will be adding a full grade, and they will be mirroring kindergarten facilities by incorporating access to restrooms and kinder-play area for the incoming 4-year-olds. 

“We’re minimizing our facility footprint and being able to utilize the facilities we have at this point,” Jamison said. “As we go into the future, we can explore further and assess whether we need additional facilities.” 

Instruction for UPK will consist of teaching young children how to be a learner and a friend, according to Newhall district staff. They will also incorporate a social-emotional learning component. 

“The focus is on creating those hands-on experiences for students,” Jaimison said. “We’ll be working with our teachers to identify those universal preschool best practices around teaching and learning.” 

The Castaic Union School District, Sulphur Springs Union School District and Saugus Union School District are also going through a similar process as they prepare to implement UPK.  

Jezelle Fullwood, assistant superintendent of education services for the Sulphur Springs district, said they are prepared to expand their ongoing practices for UPK.  

“Coming up in subsequent years, we’ll have to expand our facilities and staffing to accommodate the students that are coming in at younger ages,” Fullwood said. “For the 2022-23 school year, we’re in pretty good shape where we don’t have too much more.” 

Sulphur Springs will expand its after-school programs based on ELOP, so students in UPK will have access to a school date of up to nine hours. This is true for all, if not most, districts, according to AB130.  

“They don’t have to participate in those extended hours, but they have the option for parents who may need that day care for kids who qualify,” Fullwood said. 

Fullwood said research indicates that children who have early learning opportunities do better in their academic careers — so it’s important for kids to have the option or opportunities to build those foundational skills early on, and then also for educators to provide support or intervention if necessary. 

“Kids are malleable. They rise to the occasion, so if you teach them, they will learn,” Fullwood said. “It’s just a matter of exposure and providing opportunities that are developmentally appropriate for their little brains to develop.” 

According to Fullwood, traditionally kids have gone to private preschools, community preschool or state preschools, so by having public schools implement UPK, it’s opening up the same opportunities to everyone. 

“We’re excited to be able to reach those youngest learners and get them started early on their academic and social-emotional development career,” Fullwood said. 

School districts must approve UPK plans by June 30, according to the state Department of Education. 

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