I was pleased but not surprised when I read in a recent post on EdSource that most Californians want greater access to preschool. Almost 80 percent of voters polled said that increasing the availability of preschool to 4-year-olds is important.
That’s good news, because California is already heading in this direction. The Governor recently signed a state budget that adds 11,500 new preschool slots with more to come next year. And thanks to San Francisco voters, the city’s 4-year-olds already benefit from free, universal preschool through Preschool for All. However, we still have a long way to go before we can say that all young children are being offered the same opportunities.
While the state is focused on preschool, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. Increasing high quality preschool slots is a vital step, but it’s just the first step. In order to sustain the benefits children get from preschool, we have to ensure that the learning that happens there continues into the early grades.
Again, California is moving in the right direction with the establishment in 2010 of Transitional Kindergarten, for kids who turn five too late in the year to enroll in regular kindergarten. Until the emergence of this additional year of schooling, what happened in preschool classrooms was largely divorced from what happened in the elementary grades. Transitional kindergarten is our first vital bridge connecting the teaching and learning in these two separate systems.
San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is taking this important work to link preschool with K-12 a big step further by making changes that will improve and better connect those early education experiences with the first years of elementary school. Its leaders are making a bet that effective early education can help close the opportunity gap, and we are right there with them.
SFUSD is one of the few districts in the state to make this kind of commitment, but this groundbreaking work is not happening in San Francisco alone. District leaders were inspired by the lessons learned in PreK-3 in Montgomery County, Maryland, and in Seattle, Washington. This work showed that when standards, curriculum and teacher professional development are coordinated and aligned from preschool through the early grades, children are far more likely to do better in school and read on grade level by the end of third grade.
When SFUSD established its PreK-3 Initiative and hired its first Chief of Early Education four years ago, it joined the ranks of a growing number of visionary educators and districts across the country that are making PreK-3 a major strategy in closing opportunity gaps and improving life chances for all children.
As California moves forward to expand early learning opportunities, I hope we’ll keep the broader view in our sights. Transitional kindergarten is an important link between preschool and elementary school, but it isn’t enough. SFUSD is a district to watch for the way forward as it bridges the longstanding chasm between early childhood and K-12 education.