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Emina Kelley’s 5-year-old son just missed the cutoff to start kindergarten last fall in Arlington, Mass. His September birthday meant another year at his preschool. But Kelley’s sixth-grade daughter’s private school, Lesley Ellis School, had another option: transitional kindergarten.

“I never thought about pushing him into kindergarten anyway,” Kelley says. “Kids will grow up eventually. It’s not that I don’t think he could handle it. Socially he’s ready and academically he’s ready, but once they start school they have schoolwork, and before you know it they’re in sixth grade, so I’m in no rush.”

Transitional kindergarten, or TK for short, is a form of prekindergarten meant for kids nicknamed “young 5s.” The kids have either just missed the cutoff date to turn 5 for kindergarten — which varies by state but is typically on or around Aug. 31 — or won’t turn 5 until the very end of that academic year.

Transitional kindergarten is publicly funded in California, the only state with a large TK program, says Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers. But he thinks transitional kindergarten is on the rise nationally, at least as a name change for many current (and mostly private) preschool offerings. “There are some parents who think if their children are the youngest in a cohort that they may not do as well as if they delay their entry and have them be the oldest,” Barnett says, “but at the same time they recognize that their children do need quality early-learning experiences, so I think that’s what people are trying to get at with transitional kindergarten.”

In some cases, the students are actually kindergarten-eligible based on their age but parents have chosen to wait another year, a move more popular with boys than girls and dubbed “academic redshirting.” (Collegiate athletes often redshirt their freshman year, delaying their first year of playing eligibility to train and gain a competitive advantage.) But Barnett says that the younger children in a grade aren’t disadvantaged and that, in the end, the scholastic playing field levels out — unless you’re talking about actual playing fields. “It may matter a lot more if you’re trying to play varsity football.”

At Lesley Ellis School, transitional kindergarten is “one foot in pre-K and one foot in kindergarten,” says transitional kindergarten teacher Tiffany Bradlee. “It’s an extra year where children can develop social and emotional skills and build that foundation even more.”

Like kindergartners, transitional kindergartners are learning reading, writing and math as well as science, art and music. But like preschoolers, the day is play-based. The academics are sneaked into activities such as plays and nature walks or in daily tasks such as taking attendance.

At Lesley Ellis, students aren’t required or expected to meet any benchmarks at the end of the year. Some kids can read; others are learning letters. Bradlee says it’s not uncommon for parents to ask for extra reading work their children can do at home. “There are apps we recommend for our kids to use, but we always say the basics — read to your child every day.”

Glenwood Country Day School in Woodbine, Md., offers transitional kindergarten, but the private preschool also has prekindergarten, kindergarten and a pre-first program. Kids are placed into classes based on developmental age instead of birthday, says president and founder Cheryl Stradling. Her average TK student is 4 years old. But like Lesley Ellis, the Glenwood TK school day is play-based. The kids start out the year doing “parallel play,” playing near one another instead of with one another. By the end of the year, “they’re more well-rounded and ready for a full-day kindergarten experience,” Stradling says.

“A preschooler, everything is about them,” says Mara Bangura, early childhood program director at Lesley Ellis. “Then in TK or kindergarten they’re able to see beyond themselves a little bit, so it’s about their friends, what’s happening around them."

Kelley says she has no complaints about her son’s TK experience. “I’ll ask how was school, and he says, ‘Mommy, it was great, of course.’ ” She won’t be disappointed if he isn’t reading by the end of the year, either. “I just want him to have a great year and play and be social but get some academic piece in the mix, too.”

While at the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis in 2017, Christopher Doss completed research finding that students enrolled in San Francisco public schools’ transitional kindergarten classes performed better than those enrolled in its prekindergarten program, particularly when it came to literacy skills. Doss says not only was the TK curriculum more academic than pre-K, but TK students were in class for a full day with certified teachers paid and trained like K-12 teachers. “I think [transitional kindergarten] definitely has its advantages,” Doss says.

Meenoo Yashar, chief of early education for San Francisco schools, says the district has benefited from adding TK into the mix. “Pre-K is a strategy toward kindergarten readiness, so TK has elevated that conversation around early intervention,” she says. “We’re really taking the time to recognize how much the brain develops so quickly.”

San Francisco TK students start the year in a play-based classroom where they’re encouraged to explore activities like dramatic play and get one-on-one teacher time. By the end of the year, the classroom evolves into a kindergarten setting; more formal instruction is given while sitting at a desk. Students get report cards three times a year with commentary instead of letter grades (kids also can’t pass or fail TK). The report cards evaluate their behavioral development as well as academic progress. The behavioral benchmarks center on four areas: social awareness, self-management, growth mind-set and self-efficacy.

“The expectation is that by kindergarten, students are more regulated, have stronger impulse control, take turns — not that it’s fully developed, but much more so they can be in larger group settings,” Yashar says.

California funded transitional kindergarten in 2012 when it also moved its kindergarten cutoff date up from Dec. 2 to Sept. 2. More than 57,000 students were enrolled in TK by fall 2013, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, and enrollment climbed to more than 103,000 as of the 2017-2018 school year.

Parents often lobby the district to have kids with early September birthdays placed directly into kindergarten instead of TK, but Yashar says the answer to those requests is a firm “no.”

Stradling says interest in Glenwood TK has been increasing for the past eight years. She also gets a lot of parents at her school who want the TK program to be more strenuous. “Now, kindergarten is like first grade,” she says. “I taught first grade for 10 years, and it’s really not something you should put a little kindergartner through just yet.”

Barnett says ultimately preschool children need a safe place to explore and learn with plenty of time to be active and play. The true mark of a good preschool, though, is one that will respond to each child’s specific needs. “If all the art on the wall looks the same, they’re not individualizing. If it looks different and you think, I can pick out which one was done by my daughter or son, then that’s a sign they’re paying attention to my child.”

Veronica Graham is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass. Follow her on Twitter @vlhgraham.

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