The Santa Clarita Valley’s four elementary school districts are one year into their state-mandated universal pre-kindergarten programs and educators are revising some aspects of their plans — and hope to see more parents enroll their children in the program.
“We’re excited to be able to offer this program and give our students that head start,” said Joshua Randall, assistant superintendent of business services for the Sulphur Springs Union School District. “We’re seeing that students that attend UPK really do a wonderful job going into kindergarten and beyond.”
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, Transitional Kindergarten, Head Start, any district and local community-based preschool programs, and learning services for students with disabilities.
The 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.
As of now, parents were eligible to enroll their child for TK if they turned 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 a TK program.
Local education agencies are required to adopt plans outlining curriculum, structures, staff, funding and more criteria that would be used to implement a UPK program.
“With the UPK classroom, we’re looking at a more developmental program,” said Jezelle Fullwood, assistant superintendent of education services for the Sulphur Springs Union School district. “We’re supplementing our curriculum with developmental curriculum that’s appropriate for a transitional kindergarten or UPK students.”
Furniture, even now, must be appropriate for sizing, chairs and the depth, for example, to meet the needs of that grade level.
“There are other developmental pieces in the classroom that would help students in a more of an interest-based curriculum type of environment,” Fullwood added. “Their chairs or desks, some of their enrichment activities would look a little bit different in a UPK classroom versus a traditional kindergarten or TK.”
Students at Sulphur Springs’ UPK program are learning via an adapted curriculum for language arts and math benchmark, and math expression. Staff also use a creative curriculum, which is a more developmental curriculum for that primary age group.
Fullwood said the Sulphur Springs district’s personnel department did a wonderful job of finding the appropriate staff to work and support UPK classrooms.
The program is offered at all nine of Sulphur Springs’ schools, and for at least five years now.
Across the other three elementary school districts, the programs are similar but implemented differently.
Edwin Clement, assistant superintendent of education services for the Saugus Union School District, said that when the state started preparing for this year when UPK would begin, there were a lot of working pieces and components that districts need to be in compliance.
It takes time to develop age-appropriate curriculum, and ensure those students are in buildings that are appropriate for them, too, he said.
Carin Fractor, director of categorical and special programs for the Saugus district, said their department was tasked with developing curriculum that’s aligned to preschool foundational standards, which the California Department of Education oversees.
“We were in the process of looking at our curriculum and diving deeper to ensure that all of our classrooms have enough resources and actual teaching, and learning curriculum, that is aligned to the needs of the students coming in,” Fractor said.
These kids are 4, so they’re not expected to be at a level where they have to sit down at a desk, memorize information and begin basic arithmetic, according to Clement. A lot of the learning that they do is based on play, though there are components that introduce these students to mathematics in some form or a level of language arts.
“It’s more experimental and exploration. But it’s really remembering that’s really one of the big purposes is to get them in and we start working with them,” Clement said.
“When they go to school, they are more successful,” he continued. “They don’t have to go through that transition because it really doesn’t matter with the little ones, almost what age. I’ve seen kindergartens and first graders, on the first day of school, at their wit’s end or worse thinking that they’re being abandoned by their parent.”
According to Clement, early-learning programs can set the state for a student’s whole educational career.
“We have Second Step, which we brough on board for TK. That’s a program that we’ve had for two years. We’ve expanded it and it allows staff to teach that social-emotional learning on a level for little kids,” Clement said.
Fractor said the big goal is outreach and letting families know what programs are available to them. The Saugus district offers summer programs to engage students in enrichment and learning through those different times outside of the school day.
They also have a state preschool program for children 3 to 4. These early-learning programs for students can play a pivotal role in their development and their educational journey, according to school officials.
“We really try to… inform our parents about what options they have. Many may not be aware that through either a half-day state preschool program, or their child is eligible for the UTK program within our schools,” Fractor said. “Our big job is outreach and communication what programs are available to all our families.”