As we begin a new school year, and the second of an ambitious five-year plan to roll out transitional kindergarten (TK) in schools throughout California, I can’t help but recall the passion and “stick-to-it-iveness” demonstrated by two of our local teachers more than a dozen years ago.
I was in my last term in the California State Senate at the time. Kindergarten teacher Diana Argenti and Natalie Bivas, a support teacher and reading specialist, approached me with a petition signed by nearly 300 local teachers pushing for legislation that required prospective kindergartners to be at least 5 years old by Sept. 1 instead of Dec. 2. This was something that had been tried unsuccessfully by governors and legislators (both Democrats and Republicans) for over 25 years. So understandably, I thought it was a long shot but worth trying, nonetheless.
And let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen hundreds of kindergarten teachers swarm the state Capitol to call to attention the fact that today’s kindergarten is not the same kindergarten experienced by older generations. Noting that today’s kindergarten is much more academically rigorous than it once was, some of these teachers also advocated for a new program that adequately prepares “Young Fives” for kindergarten.
The more I listened, the more I was convinced. If we started these kids at the right age and gave them the benefit of a “get-ready” year as well, it would produce a lifetime of lasting benefits. And that’s how Senate Bill 1381, or the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which established TK — the first new grade level in the state since 1891 — came to be. California became the only state in the nation with a large-scale TK program.
It almost didn’t happen. The bill came up on the last night of the legislative session at 11:52 p.m., mere minutes from the session’s midnight end. We had 19 votes and needed 21 in our 40-member State Senate. By 11:53 p.m. we had 21 votes. And then, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finally signed the bill into law on what was literally the very last day allowed by law.
We planted a seed 13 years ago that is finally coming to fruition. We were initially able to fund TK at no additional cost (using the savings from changing the starting age) in the hopes that the program would prove itself in the subsequent years. And it has.
Our initial effort provided TK for about a quarter of California’s kindergarteners. In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that phases in TK access for all of California’s 4-year-olds by the 2025–26 school year.
Over the course of the last decade, a million California youngsters have already had the benefit of TK. A kindergarten readiness assessment conducted by the Santa Clara County Office of Education found that students who had a full year or more of quality early care and education were 67% more likely to be ready for kindergarten. In the years and grades that follow, TK makes a difference. And it’s not a marginal difference; it’s a significant one.
TK has been especially beneficial for low-income students and English language learners. A study by the American Institutes for Research found a notable improvement in language skills for English language learners and math skills for low-income students once they entered kindergarten. That means that when these kids start kindergarten, they are truly ready to start, not playing catch-up.
Play—which we now know is fundamental to child development—is also a critical part of the TK curriculum. On a recent visit at Lexington Elementary School in Los Gatos, I got to see for myself the joy and wonder on the faces of the young students as they ran around on a field, clutching miniature binoculars for a supervised scavenger hunt.
Some families have options for early education. Many do not. Regardless, as part of our public education system, TK offers a wonderful combination of a high-quality curriculum and free play taught by a credentialed teacher.
Now that TK has proven itself, millions more kids will have this opportunity in the years ahead. TK is optional, and each family will make its own choice, but it’s a tremendous opportunity for every family and every kid in our county. I’m heartened by the decade of experience and understanding we now have; we know that kids who have had TK are doing better academically than their peers who didn’t have that same opportunity.
So please, make sure the youngsters in your life have the benefit of TK. If they’re eligible, sign them up!
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian represents the Fifth District which includes Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Saratoga, Stanford, portions of San Jose and unincorporated communities in the Santa Cruz Mountains.