One year after Governor Gavin Newsom first proposed universal pre kindergarten for all California four-year-olds, Santa Monica’s school district leaders are preparing to phase in the free program, which will gradually expand the current transitional kindergarten, or TK, programs for students just a little too young to start kindergarten.

All kids in the State of California must be enrolled in some kind of school program by age six, but before the first day of kindergarten, there are a whole range of options for parents, each with pros and cons: preschool, nursery school, Montessori, daycare, even hanging out at home with mom and dad. 

The biggest con to many of the more structured programs is financial, with private preschools and even public school early learning programs featuring price tags over $1,500 or more per school year for those who don’t qualify for financial subsidies. Santa Monica’s new Early Childhood Lab School for kids ages three months through five years old costs $25,500 per academic year for those who don’t qualify for tuition breaks.

The heavy financial burden of early childhood education — which provides not only enrichment but daycare — was why, amid the state’s budget surplus of 2021, Newsom presented the idea of offering what amounts to one additional free year of quality care for their little ones prior to kindergarten. 

At the regular Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) meeting on Thursday, May 19, Director of Early Learning Susan Samarge-Powell will present information on how the local pre kindergarten program will function.

In an interview on Tuesday, Samarge-Powell said the transition into universal pre kindergarten will function like a gradual expansion of the current TK program, a move she said was likely to be popular among parents of kids otherwise too old to qualify for the extra year of school under the current TK model.

She said the current TK program is just for kids turning five between September 2 and December 2 of each year — “a very limited window,” according to Samarge-Powell — and it began eight years ago when the state had shifted the start age of kindergarten back by a few months. But the program was so popular, districts kept it.

“So now, we were having the kids who were going to get this additional year’s worth of experience, and now be the oldest kids walking into kindergarten with the most amount of experience,” Samarge-Powell described. “And so, people were kind of like, ‘Hey, that’s not cool.’ So the District, actually, is fully in favor of doing this. 

“We love the idea that the State has really recognized that early learning is vital to children’s future success, because that’s what we’ve believed and you would know from our District,” she continued. “The District has already provided funding for early learning in our programs, you know, independent of the state, so it’s a great thing to have.”

Students within the District’s boundaries turning five between Sept. 2, 2022, and Feb. 2, 2023, will qualify for the expanded TK program in the 2022-23 school year. The following school year, that will expand by two months, to children turning five between Sept. 2, 2023, and April 2, 2024. The next school year, TK will be open to children turning five between Sept. 2, 2024, and June 2, 2025. Finally, by fall 2025, all children who turned four before Sept. 1 are eligible for TK.

Samarge-Powell said the universal pre kindergarten program “is not supposed to be designed to be ‘first grade lite’”; rather, it is designed to “foster the enthusiasm about learning and being creative.”

Currently, with the very small window of eligible TK students, the program is not available at every school site in the district. Samarge-Powell said it was too soon to know for sure what enrollment in the program might look like by its final expansion in 2025, but that capacity would expand into more sites as needs require. 

The full presentation on the new program is set to take place during the Thursday, May 19, SMMUSD Board of Education meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. The meeting can be viewed on the SMMUSD YouTube channel or via Zoom (webinar ID:  814 9385 8023; passcode:  477106 ; call-in number: 669.900.6833).