Good morning ‘Rockets’ says Columbia Elementary Transitional Kindergarten teacher Natalie Lemons to her class as they sit on the carpet. In today’s class, students focus on the letter R. “What’s another name for Cariboo?” Lemons asks. “Reindeer,” says the class. Lemons’ classroom looks and sounds just like any other kindergarten class in the Wenatchee School District, but its focus is on equipping preschool-aged students with high-quality kinder readiness skills.
Starting in 2020 as a way to bridge the early learning gap, Transitional Kindergarten (TK) is a full-day kindergarten program for children who are four years old before August 31, live within a school’s boundaries, and have been identified as needing additional support to be successful in kindergarten through a screener. The TK program serves students who do not qualify for or attend other schools or programs such as Head Start, ECEAP, or licensed child care programs. Students can be English Language Learners or qualify for special education.
Wenatchee TK programs are provided at no cost to families, are staffed by highly trained, certificated educators, and give students access to all the aspects of the regular kindergarten school day, such as transportation, meals, and specialists (music, PE, art, etc.). Classrooms are designed to meet the unique needs of preschool students and offer high-quality early learning programs with developmentally appropriate rest times, structured interactive playtime, and hands-on activities. WSD offers two TK classes at Columbia Elementary and one at Mission View Elementary.
In Wenatchee and across the state, access to early childhood education is limited. 80% of Washington’s preschool-age children don’t have access to state-funded preschool, and TK is an important option available to qualified children. Kindergarten readiness strongly predicts whether students will meet the standard on the third-grade statewide assessments in math and English language arts (ELA). “In Kindergarten, students have huge academic expectations placed on them, and many of them come to Kindergarten lacking the skills that they need to meet these expectations”, says Lemons. “The TK program gives families of children in need an opportunity to get their children ready for kindergarten without worrying about finances.”
This is Lemons’ first year teaching TK in Wenatchee. She taught TK in another district previously and says she enjoys seeing the tremendous growth that students make academically or socially. “At this age, they are like little sponges and absorb everything around them. It’s amazing to watch them grow to be incredible and intelligent little humans!” Marcy Wright, a veteran teacher, brings a strong background as a Kindergarten, first-grade, and developmental preschool teacher to Columbia TK. Wright notes that students who participate in TK build a solid academic foundation. “They know how to write their names, identify and write numbers and letters, and use phonics and phonemic awareness; students also know how to follow directions, routines, and expectations and work cooperatively,” she said.
According to a fall 2022 report released by OSPI, kindergarten students who had participated in TK outperformed their peers on the WaKIDS assessment in all six domains.
Wright and Lemons’ Kindergarten colleagues at Columbia have noticed too. They report that TK students have the social skills to interact in the classroom from day one of Kinder and experience less separation anxiety. They have pre-academic skills such as holding a pencil, and cutting, and they come in able to count, have basic phonemic awareness skills, concepts of print, can read and say their name, and are generally at the developmental levels that standards and curriculum assume kids enter kindergarten.
Despite all the positive outcomes of TK, there are still challenges for the relatively new program, including coordinating with agencies, lack of teaching support resources, and funding. A bill currently under consideration in the Washington Legislature would change the program, moving jurisdiction from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to a partnership between OSPI and the Division of Children, Youth and Family Services. Currently, the TK program is funded through OSPI, but under the new legislation, it would be paid for through the reimbursement paid by the state's early childhood education programs. This shift could result in a lower per-pupil rate. A separate piece of legislation also under consideration would raise reimbursement for early childhood education, which should come close to making up the difference.
“TK is very necessary to prepare kids for kindergarten. It is not just free preschool or daycare, but a developmentally appropriate academic setting for our youngest learners,” says Lemons.
“I love the huge amount of growth I see the students make while having fun and their excitement for learning. It’s like teaching them how to use a flashlight and watching them light up their world,” said Wright.