The Los Angeles Unified School District is growing its free pre-K program.

Calling All 4-Year-Olds: LAUSD’s Pre-K Classes Are Ready

Every child who turns 4 by or on September 1 can enroll in transitional kindergarten at the district’s elementary schools next school year.

LAUSD is expanding its program well ahead of a state mandate to open public school preschool to every 4-year-old by the 2025-26 school year.

“Why wait two years to empower students with early literacy, early numeracy [and] earlier socialization?” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho at a press conference Friday. “Why wait two years when we can do it now?”

The district aims to enroll 25,000 students in transitional kindergarten next school year. Right now there are about 14,000 students in the program across 317 school campuses.

What is transitional kindergarten (TK)?

  • Transitional kindergarten is a preschool program offered at many public schools. Parents should expect to see hands-on learning activities and play in kindergarten classrooms. LAUSD Executive Director of Early Childhood Education Dean Tagawa said one major focus is “oral language development.” For example, singing, rhyming, and chanting help kids start to understand how sounds connect to language. What kids learn is based on the state’s learning standards for preschool.

  • Kindergarten classrooms have furniture sized for smaller kids, libraries and areas to play pretend. “The classroom environment becomes like a third teacher,” Tagawa said.

  • Each district implements kindergarten a little differently, so you’ll get the most useful information by asking them for more details about the program. For example, some schools combine their kindergarten and kindergarten classes until there are enough 4-year-olds enrolled to fill a separate classroom.

  • Is kindergarten the same thing as pre-K?

  • Fundamentally, yes. The California Department of Education considers pre-K as an umbrella term — transitional kindergarten is pre-K, but not everything that could be considered pre-K is transitional kindergarten. (Programs like Head Start, for example.)

  • In 2010, state lawmakers passed The Kindergarten Readiness Act, which changed the age cutoff for kindergarten. It required districts to offer a new program— transitional kindergarten— to kids who would be excluded from kindergarten because of the change, those with 5th birthdays between September and December of the current school year.

  • The law defines transitional kindergarten as “the first year of a two-year kindergarten program that uses a modified kindergarten curriculum that is age and developmentally appropriate.” The program will be open to every child who turns 4 by September 1 of the current school year by 2025.

LAUSD’s preschool expansion is years in the making. The school board voted in 2021 to create a plan for universal preschool by the time school started in 2024.

The district used state and one-time pandemic relief funding to equip new transitional kindergarten classrooms with 4-year-old-sized furniture, books, and other learning materials. Each classroom is staffed by a certified teacher and at least one other educator.

Carvalho said the district had the capacity to add thousands of more students this year, but that pandemic-related fear and a lack of information contributed to families’ reluctance to enroll. Districts also face competition from private providers, who may offer programs that put more emphasis on play, or that offer smaller classes and extended hours of care.

Statewide enrollment has also lagged. This school year just over half of eligible families signed up for kindergarten, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“We just have to find a way to get the word out to communities that this is a safe and trusted opportunity for our families,” said California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who also attended Friday’s press conference.

The youngest of Anderne Kinney’s three children started at Van Deene Avenue Elementary’s transitional kindergarten program last year.

“I wanted her to be somewhere where she felt like her sisters were there to keep her safe,” Kinney said.

A Black woman stands in a school yard posing for the camera.  Behind her is a playground with slides and jungle gym equipment.

Anderne Kinney, a parent of a transitional kindergarten student at Van Deene Avenue Elementary School.

Her daughter Lydia’s first educational experience was through Zoom, and later in-person preschool was inconsistent because of COVID-related shutdowns.

“When she got here, she was very closed, she didn’t necessarily believe that she could trust everybody,” Kinney said. Now Lydia has a best friend.

Kinney noticed her daughter’s academic skills were growing too. Lydia has started to identify letters and a few words, including her sisters’ names, and “doughnut.”

“This is the stepping stone,” Kinney said, “to understanding the concepts of reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

How to sign up in LAUSD

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California? What’s a story that’s not being told about your school?

Mariana Dale wants to hear from parents, educators, and students about what’s happening in schools — the successes and challenges.

Corrected June 27, 2023 at 11:13 AM PDT

A previous version of this story missed the eligibility deadline.