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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Brain developers, not babysitters
Learning from our early TK implementers
By Rebecca Cheung and Aija Simmons | January | February 2023
As California begins its commitment to Universal Transitional Kindergarten for all 4-year-olds by 2026, we’re ramping up efforts to enable K-12 school leaders to effectively serve our most marginalized children and families.
At the 21st Century California School Leadership Academy State Center, based at UC Berkeley and in partnership with UCLA, we launched a Transitional Kindergarten Leadership Initiative earlier this year. This $5 million, state-funded effort promises to deepen California’s UTK by giving the state’s leaders — school, district and site — the tools and strategies they need to provide developmentally, culturally and linguistically responsive early learning experiences.
We know that ensuring rich, inclusive and joyous early learning environments for all early learners, and particularly for traditionally underrepresented students, requires a doubling down on equity-focused leadership. What does it look like in practice?
We started this work by turning to those who have been implementing equity-centered TK and early childhood education in their schools across the state. Our 21CSLA webinar “Leadership Lessons from Early TK Implementers in California” was moderated by Tara Ryan, deputy director, Center for District Innovation and Leadership in Early Education, and included panelists Christie Herrera, executive director of Early Learning at Oakland Unified School District; Noemi Valdes, director, Early Childhood Education Programs in the Oxnard School District; and Sandra Lee, program coordinator, Weaver Union School District.
We asked these early childhood pioneers: “As an early TK implementer, what advice do you have for the field?” Here are some of the key takeaways from the panelists:
Trust the process: Don’t implement too much, too fast. They are 4-year-olds, so trust your instincts and don’t force them to sit too long. And the same goes for the adult leaders. Check in emotionally. Make sure we don’t pile on too much.
Remember brain development: Here is where we can make an impact. Learning happens when people — both children and adults — are enjoying the process. Go outside: “There is value to playing with mud in a mud kitchen,” said one panelist. “I want my teachers to know they are brain developers and not babysitters.”
Apply for grants to hire coaches from the beginning: Recruit the best TK and PreK teachers to be coaches. High-quality coaching tied to professional development can have an impact.
Go into an early learning classroom: K-12 educators need to know what’s happening in our TK classrooms. One panelist emphasized: “If you’re not in early learning, become best friends with the early learning director, coordinator or principal in your district … Being able to speak about it, to promote it, is really important.”
Think about developmentally appropriate practices: This is an opportunity to re-look at equity practices and programming for maximum impact on student outcomes. It’s important to examine developmentally appropriate practices, such as play-based approaches, that build motivation for learning and exploration as well as language and social skills. Time spent in play is an instructional strategy and not a “free for all.” In contrast, an approach using a “pencil and paper activity” that asks a 4-year-old to sit down for 15 minutes can trigger challenging behaviors that lead to punitive actions like expulsion and ultimately exploit the students who are most in need of the early childhood opportunities.
Consider workforce as an equity issue: California is asking TK teachers to obtain a credential and 24 Early Childhood Education units beyond that credential. Work with local county offices of education and districts to provide courses and professional learning free-of-charge. Asking teachers to pay for these courses may put training out of reach for some. Bridging the gap between UTK and K-5 often requires a “reset button” to examine instructional plans, and that means time in professional learning.
We know that ensuring rich, inclusive and joyous early learning environments for all early learners and particularly for traditionally underrepresented students requires a doubling down on equity-focused leadership.
Collaborate on pipeline development and training: Recognize the tension that may arise when UTK in K-12 public school districts draws teachers away from community-based organizations (CBOs). Tap into the existing pipeline training programs in community colleges and CBOs, collaborate with them, and send people to those programs. Link our prekindergarten and transitional kindergarten teachers together so that they don’t feel isolated, and provide coaches for them. “The only way we can serve UTK and UPK effectively is if we do it well and if we do it together.”
Bring childcare providers and families together: Bring families to the table to address equity issues, such as fears over closure of quality preschool programs with the new state initiative. A family should be able to choose early childhood education. Make sure that CBOs and small business owners do not lose business because of UTK. Be transparent and collaborative about plans and ensure efforts to subcontract. Listen to fears and solutions in the community such as, “Don’t steal our 4’s and if you do, give us your 3’s.”
Find your partners: Look into the resources that already exist in your community, including in county offices of education. Share information about inclusion and professional development. Reach out to county offices of education for data. One panelist said, “Put on your tennis shoes and walk the community to get to know your early learning partners. They serve our families, right now.”
As we develop this work in California, we hope to share what we learn far and wide across the country to help transform systems in meaningful ways for all of our children and families. Together, we can fulfill the equity promise of Universal Pre-Kindergarten.
Dr. Rebecca Cheung is Assistant Dean for Leadership Development at the Berkeley School of Education and Aija Simmons directs the 21CSLA Transitional Kindergarten Leadership Initiative.
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