In summer 2021, California’s legislature approved a significant expansion of Transitional Kindergarten (TK). TK is a school-based early-education program serving four-year-old students who turn five after September 1 to access a robust learning experience before kindergarten. California’s effort, namely Universal Transitional Kindergarten (UTK), attempts to make TK available to every four-year-old over the next three years (by 2025–26). According to the California Department of Education (CDE), Universal Prekindergarten (UPK) is a mixed-delivery system that includes CDE-operated California State Preschool Programs, federal Head Start Programs, and community-based family childcare or private preschool, whereas UTK refers to school-based early-learning programs as part of the K–12 public school system. This brief centers UTK. It is projected that an additional 250,000 students will enter UTK programs statewide by the 2025–26 school year, leading to an increased need for an additional 11,000 new early-childhood education (ECE) teachers. As the UTK rolls out, school leaders play an essential role in its implementation.
Knowing that adding a preschool program is more complex than adding one more grade level, school leaders anticipate facing many challenges in the midst of opportunities. In previous research articles on preparing school principals for ECE in states such as Illinois and North Carolina, principals shared their concerns about not having adequate training in areas such as ECE curriculum, developmental milestones, age-appropriate disciplinary practices for younger learners, and proper support for TK teachers. After reviewing the states’ professional-learning requirements for school leaders, policy analysts echoed principals’ concerns that few professional trainings focused on helping principals develop essential skills and knowledge to lead ECE programs.
In this research brief, we shed light on three key findings from the ECE research literature that could be informative for school leaders when implementing UTK. We conclude this brief with reflection questions that may help frame the next steps for school personnel at different levels.