The majority of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years (1), so education during this period is a significant foundation and stepping stone in a child’s educational journey. The transitional kindergarten (TK) instructional level for four-year-olds was first introduced in 2012 for children who miss the age cut-off for kindergarten. The transition from preschool into elementary school is critical in developing social and cognitive skills, and studies have shown that children who attend TK are more confident in school and are held back less often (2). Without access to a quality TK program, some children risk being left behind academically before they even enter kindergarten. The lack of a TK option has been identified as an early source of an achievement gap.
Ensuring broader access to early education has long been a goal of educational leaders and advocates in California and nationally. In 2021 California took a big step toward that goal, as California Governor Gavin Newsom signed groundbreaking legislation to provide free, universal TK for all four-year-old children in the state by 2025.
Currently, many California school districts do offer TK programs. Along with private preschools and daycare centers, this is known as a “mixed delivery” model. But many children are still missing out and experiencing what amounts to a significant educational gap. Currently, about 100,000 students are enrolled in a TK program (3), but California’s plan will bring TK education to every district in the state, giving approximately 400,000 students— no matter their income or zip code—the opportunity to succeed and thrive in school. The hope is this mandate will go a long way toward closing an achievement gap that persists across the state. This mandate, possibly requiring the expansion of facilities, will have a major impact on the promise of equity in public education.
Funding and Staff Support
While the benefit to generations of Californians is clear, at a time when districts are facing funding, staffing and space challenges, difficult questions remain on how to pay for the facilities that will properly serve this new grade level; specifically, how to build and staff them.
The legislation has a total budget of $2.7 billion, with $490 million (4) earmarked for the construction, renovation, and rightsizing of school facilities to accommodate a TK program. Although funding formulas and sources are complex, generally, the distribution of these funds will be based on need within each district, similar to how California’s free and reduced meal eligibility is calculated. While many districts may receive some funding for retrofit and/or expansion, most districts will not receive funding through the new Preschool, Transitional Kindergarten, and Full-Day Kindergarten Facilities Grant Program (PTKFDKFGP). Regardless of district size or socioeconomics, most of the 977 California school districts will face difficult financial decisions in order to meet the mandate.
In addition to the primary budget, there are several grant programs targeted to meet specific needs. For example, the UPK Planning and Implementation (P&I) Grant Program provides funds for local educational agencies (LEAs) to create or expand preschool or TK programs; including planning, hiring, training, and classroom materials costs. The “Early Education Teacher Development Grant” allocates $100 million to help districts increase the number of credentialed TK teachers. This money can also be used to help current teachers with professional development in inclusive classrooms, culturally-responsive instruction, dual language learning, and trauma-informed practices (5).
Funding from the various public sources is extremely competitive, and many argue that current funds are not enough to make a dent in the newly added requirements. The reality of inadequate budgets underscores the need for districts to work closely and collaboratively with industry partners to design solutions that will meet the need and maximize funding opportunities.
Campus and Site Challenges
Public school facilities are highly regulated, and the Universal TK Mandate is no exception. In addition to existing requirements, this legislation includes a set of key CDE recommendations to accommodate the needs of young children
through the school day. TK and Kindergarten classrooms are required by Title 5 to be 1,350 square feet, larger than a standard 960 square foot classroom; bathroom access from within classrooms is recommended; classes must have age-specific play structures separate from the rest of the campus; parking must also be considered, including proximate parent drop-off areas; there is a student-teacher ratio of 13:1 within each 1,350 square foot learning environment.
In the Davis Joint Unified School District, just west of Sacramento, HMC Principal Architect Mike Rath is working with district leadership on a masterplan that spans eight elementary school campuses, requiring the addition of four new TK classrooms to meet the new TK requirements. He talks about some of the challenges, “We are starting with the idea of using the same classroom plan for multiple sites, which offers economies-of scale, starting with the ability to expedite DSA approval via re-use of plans, and also in the construction process.” He estimates this may yield a 10-20 percent cost savings. “But because every campus is different, there are a lot of configuration factors to address. We are trying to locate the new TK classrooms next to existing kindergartens and to utilize existing play areas. There are issues with proximity to drop-off areas and we look at the distance to the cafeteria, which is a factor for younger students. In some cases, we’re really trying to fit a classroom into a tight area.” He mentions that in several instances they are proposing to use an existing under-utilized classroom. At another campus within the district, enrollment requires two new TK classrooms. The district’s prior masterplan may need to be revisited after the TK situation is addressed—another challenge districts will be facing.
“Of course,” he continues, “district planners are trying to predict future TK enrollment and capacity based on rapidly changing information, demographic trends, proposed development—as always, it’s a tricky moving target.”
Like DJUSD, many districts have begun planning and building new TK classrooms or adapting existing spaces. Between now and fall 2025 the adoption of the Universal TK mandate will require districts to dedicate a significant fiscal, planning and design, and construction effort. While these changes will undoubtedly be challenging, educators and policy experts agree that in the long run, the promise of a more equitable and effective K-12 program will be worth the effort and expense.
Universal TK—Tracking the Implementation
As California school districts work to meet the Universal TK mandate by fall of 2025, this story is the first in a series HMC School News will publish about the challenges and opportunities facilities planners and educators are addressing. If you are interested in consulting regarding TK planning and implementation, Julie Strauss, PreK-12 market leader, is available to help. Julie.Strauss@HMCArchitects.com.
1. Karen D’Souza, “Universal Transitional Kindergarten | Quick Guide,” EdSource, October 13, 2021
2. “About TK,” TKCalifornia (website), accessed November 22, 2022
3. Karen D’Souza, “Universal Transitional Kindergarten | Quick Guide,” EdSource, October 13, 2021
4. Karen D’Souza, “Universal Transitional Kindergarten | Quick Guide,” EdSource, October 13, 2021
5. “Universal Prekindergarten FAQs,” California Department of Education, accessed November 22, 2022