Paula Arce-Trigatti | NNERPP

Volume 1 Issue 1 (2019), pp. 2-5

Introduction to “Research Insights”

As a Network of research-practice partnerships, we view serving as connectors to be one of our primary roles here at NNERPP. To that end, we are excited to present “Research Insights,” a new series bringing together related studies from NNERPP members so that our readers can (i) stay current on member research, (ii) see how related studies or programs compare, and (iii) generate new questions, ideas, or programs based on this collective knowledge. We hope to reach a variety of interested readers, including education researchers, leaders, and policymakers working across a number of important topics in education. Our intent is to have these articles serve as a jumping off point for more questions, more research, and indeed, more connections between relevant stakeholders. Happy reading!

Overview of the 3 District-Led Programs That Support the Transition to Kindergarten

In this first edition of the “Research Insights” series, we visit the early childhood education space across NNERPP. Here we find three districts offering different versions of a kindergarten transition program for their students (programmatic details provided below). As it happens, the programs show a nice spectrum of possibilities for how a district might support their students in the transition to kindergarten, with Portland Public Schools offering the shortest and least resource intensive program while the program run by the San Francisco Unified School District is the longest and most resource intensive of the three.

We start with a brief overview of each program:

Portland, OR: EKT

Portland Public Schools first piloted the Early Kindergarten Transition Program (EKT) in 2010 in two elementary schools, now offered at 41 schools across Multnomah County. The main goal of EKT is to promote a successful transition to kindergarten for incoming children attending Title I schools through a free, three-week summer program targeted to both children and their parents. In particular, the program aims to increase parental involvement in their children’s learning, reduce chronic absenteeism in kindergarten, and promote children’s success in school. During the course of fifteen half-day sessions in the summer prior to the start of kindergarten, children get the opportunity to practice school routines and expectations with a kindergarten teacher (among other activities), while parents and guardians attend meetings to facilitate relationship building with school staff and learn how to support their child’s learning at home.   

Madison, WI: MMSD 4K

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) launched MMSD four-year old kindergarten (4K) in 2011 with the goal of supporting social emotional and academic skill development of students prior to entering five-year-old kindergarten. All children who are four years old on or before September 1 are eligible to participate in the 3-hour per day program, offered in the morning or afternoon Tuesdays through Friday for one academic year. The district offers 4K in schools, early care and education, and Head Start sites. It is free to all eligible students other than a $40 materials fee. In the 2018-19 school year, 1,776 students participated in MMSD 4K, reaching about three quarters of the students who enroll in kindergarten. School-based sites follow Creative Curriculum, a play-based program, while the early care and education sites and Head Start sites are encouraged to follow the same curriculum but are not required to do so.

San Francisco, CA: TK

In 2010, then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which required all districts in California to offer Transitional Kindergarten (TK) starting in 2012/13. With wide flexibility on implementation of the law, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) developed a modified curriculum based on the California Preschool Learning Foundations and the Kindergarten Common Core Standards for use in its schools. The main goal of the two-year program is to bridge the skills gap across social, developmental, and academic areas for a successful transition to kindergarten. Eligible students, i.e., those who turn five between September 2 and December 2, are able to attend TK at 18 school-based or early childhood education sites. The program runs on an academic calendar year and features a 6-hour day, Monday through Friday. (Note that San Francisco also offers universal pre-kindergarten.)

Research Questions

All three districts are actively engaged with external researchers through their own research-practice partnerships: Portland Public Schools partners with University of Portland and Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) through the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research; MMSD partners with University of Wisconsin-Madison through the Madison Education Partnership; and SFUSD partners with Stanford University to form the Stanford-SFUSD Partnership.

Through these partnerships, the districts have been able to explore students’ enrollment and participation in the programs. Here we share the research questions asked in each partnership-led study: 

Portland, OR: EKT

How do the demographics, attendance, and scores on an early literacy skills fluency measure (DIBELS) of EKT students that participated in EKT compare over time with students who attended EKT schools but did not participate in the program?

Madison, WI: MMSD 4K

From Report 1 on Attendance:

Does MMSD 4K reach those students least advantaged and/or most at risk of low levels in kindergarten readiness? Do MMSD school and early care and education sites serve similar populations? Is the time of day that MMSD $K is offered associated with patterns of enrollment? How does 4K enrollment in MMSD compare with similar districts in WI? 

From Report 2 on Readiness: 

Is MMSD 4K enrollment associated with higher levels of kindergarten readiness (as measured by literacy and social emotional skills)? Do the associations between MMSD 4K enrollment and kindergarten readiness vary across racial/ethnic groups, free/reduced price lunch, or parent education? Is 4K site type associated with varying levels of kindergarten readiness? How does the association between 4K enrollment and kindergarten readiness in MMSD compare to Milwaukee Public Schools?

San Francisco, CA: TK

What is the effect of Transitional Kindergarten (TK) on student literacy skills and attendance in kindergarten and first grade, when compared to San Francisco’s universal prekindergarten program?

Do the effects vary by student ethnicity or other characteristics like English Learner status?

District Snapshots, 2018/19
Portland Public Schools (OR) Madison Metropolitan SD (WI)* San Francisco Unified SD (CA)
49,550 students 27,009 students 54,063 students
9% African American 18% African American 7% African American
7% Asian 9% Asian 35% Asian
16% Latino 21% Latino 27% Latino
56% White 43% White 15% White
36% Low-income 48% Low-income 55% Low-income
7% English Language Learner 28% English Language Learner 29% English Language Learner

*2017/18 Data

What Does the Research Show?

In terms of participation, all three programs tended to serve a greater number of non-white than white students, with a large portion of these students also classified as English Language Learners. Moreover, some of the findings from the TK evaluation in SFUSD and Report 2 on MMSD suggest that the benefits of the program are larger for minority children. Similar to how the authors of the MMSD 4K study characterize their findings, the findings from all three studies suggest that the programs are “equity-enhancing” (Report 1 on Attendance, p. 1) in that students from historically disadvantaged racial or income groups are more likely to participate than more advantaged students.

In terms of benefits to participation, we categorize the findings into three groups: attendance, literacy skills, and kindergarten readiness.

Attendance: EKT students (Portland) and TK students (San Francisco) seem to have better attendance rates in kindergarten, although this effect appears limited to Asian students in the San Francisco case (note that this particular outcome was not included in the MMSD 4K analysis).

Literacy Skills: Two of the three studies find improvements in literacy skills among students who enrolled in the program. In Madison, students who enrolled in MMSD 4K had slightly stronger literacy skills when starting kindergarten. And in San Francisco, kindergartners who attended TK outperformed their peers on all pre-literacy skills while English Language Learners who attended TK also outperformed their peers on a test measuring reading, listening, speaking and writing for non-English speakers. In the other hand, the research on EKT in Portland does not find any statistically significant differences between EKT and non-EKT students on the DIBELS test for literacy.

Readiness: The Madison team additionally looked at skills associated with kindergarten readiness and find that students who enrolled in MMSD 4K were slightly more likely to have strong classroom behavior skills at the start of kindergarten.

Policy Implications

Here we share potential implications for policymakers as a result of these studies. First, although we note the research designs in the Portland and Madison studies are not causal, the findings from each are encouraging to policymakers interested in exploring options for offering promising programs that support the transition to kindergarten. In the case of Portland’s EKT program in particular, this could be one cost-saving way to offer some initial supports to students.

Second, for those interested in offering a more comprehensive program, the research finds that the SFUSD-designed TK does indeed provide direct benefits over other prekindergarten programs offered within SFUSD. Additional insights suggested from the research on TK is that these benefits may be partially due to two features of the program: one is that TK is subject to greater regulations than other prekindergarten programs in SFUSD, likely reducing the variation in quality across sites and two, the curriculum in TK is more academic in nature than what is offered in prekindergarten programs.

How Was the Work Used in Practice?

We asked the RPP teams how the research studies were used by their practice-side partners. Here’s what they had to say:

Portland, OR: Early Learners Program Manager for Portland Public Schools, Nancy Hauth, appreciated these findings, using them to improve data collection and tracking, as well as expand the program. In addition, the district created and widely distributed a research brief based on the data to market the program.

Madison, WI: MMSD found both reports incredibly helpful in quantifying trends across the first several years of the 4K program. While the district already knew about some aspects of enrollment, digging into it in greater depth over a longer period of time helped frame and confirm much of what they believed. The reports also gave a public profile to the program, informing the greater Madison community about these enrollment trends and the potential impact on equity. MMSD will continue to use these reports for long-term planning and immediate programmatic improvement, sharing those results with district leaders and the Board of Education. The reports also built confidence and trust between the researchers and district leaders, which has led to further studies that test new interventions around home visits for incoming kindergarteners and professional development for 4K teachers.

San Francisco, CA: The study results prompted SFUSD to reexamine their goals for TK impact, sparking conversations about the specific skills the district wants to promote in each of their grades and whether improving reading levels should be a goal at the Transitional Kindergarten level.

Want to Learn More?

Below we share links to all of the relevant work from each of these three studies in hopes that you’ll continue exploring the programs, research, and partnerships in this article.

Journal article on EKT MEP Report 1 on MMSD 4K attendance Research paper on TK
PPS research brief on EKT MEP Report 2 on MMSD 4K impacts Blogpost on TK (researcher)
Blogpost on EKT (practitioner) Blogpost on MMSD 4K (researcher) Blogpost on EKT (practitioner)
PPS EKT website MMSD 4K website SFUSD TK website
Contact Nicole Ralston to learn more about the research Contact Beth Vaade to learn more about the research Contact Laura Wentworth to learn more about the research

 Paula Arce-Trigatti is Director of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP).

Suggested citation: Arce-Trigatti, P. (2019). Transitioning to Kindergarten: What 3 RPPs Find on District-Led Programs. NNERPP Extra, 1(1), 2-5.

NNERPP | EXTRA is a quarterly magazine produced by the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships  |