Drop in kindergarten enrollment amid pandemic leads to growing concern about widening achievement gap

There are growing concerns about big gaps among students in first grade classrooms across California next fall as thousands of families opted to skip kindergarten this school year.

Low kindergarten enrollment prompts concerns about widening first grade achievement gap.

California is one of 31 states that do not require children to attend kindergarten. So with the pandemic, many families chose not to have their young kids sit in front of a computer for distance learning. And among low income families, the decision may have come down to whether parents had the resources to juggle work and provide the supervision their 5-year-old needs to maneuver through virtual learning. 

That means schools are bracing for a larger than usual number of students entering first grade without going through kindergarten and without gaining tools, for both academic and social emotional development, critical to helping them maneuver through grade school.

Low kindergarten enrollment prompts concerns about widening first grade achievement gap in California schools.

Educators said people often undervalue how essential the lessons learned in kindergarten are to the transition into first grade and to the overall success in student performance. 

"Early childhood education is incredibly important for a child's development," explained Gennie Gorback, president of the California Kindergarten Association and early childhood educator based in Orinda. "They must learn how to 'do school,' meaning being a citizen in a classroom, following a teacher's directions and developing problem solving skills." 

Gorback said that kindergarten also offers opportunities for children to develop their fine motor skills, which come into play in areas like learning to tie their shoes and down the road, learning to compose long paragraphs. 

The time spent in early education settings is also integral to strengthening communications skills, especially important for students who come from households where English is not the primary language.

"English language learners (ELLs) greatly benefit from being immersed in a space where English is the primary language spoken," Gorback explained.   

Educators also stressed that skills gained also play a big role in setting the foundation of a child's academic life and beyond. 

"A full year of kindergarten ensures students have access to high-quality academic, social, and developmentally-appropriate experiences which provide a strong foundation for a lifetime of success," said Austin Beutner Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

According to figures from the national nonprofit group Education Commission of the States, LAUSD, California's largest school district saw its overall enrollment decline 14%, with the most significant decrease in the kindergarten ranks, which lost 6,000 students.

Figures also showed declines in other school districts including San Diego Unified, which saw a decline of 1,682 kindergarten and transitional kindergarten children. Kindergarten enrollment in the Sacramento City Unified School District was down 18% from the previous year.

Enrollment was also down in the Oakland Unified School District with 2,827 kindergarten students this school year compared with 3,128 kindergarteners last year, a drop of roughly 10%, according to OUSD spokesman John Sasaki.


The data further bolstered ongoing efforts to make kindergarten a requirement in California. State Sen. Susan Rubio, (D)  Baldwin Park, is behind Senate Bill 70, an early education bill which would require students to complete one year in kindergarten before entering the first grade.

"The voluntary participation of kindergarten increases student chronic absenteeism and further widens the achievement gap," Sen. Rubio said in a statement.

Rubio’s office points to research from the National Education Association that found kindergartners who miss 10% or more school days have lower academic performance by the time they reach the first grade. 

"As a public school teacher for 17 years, I have witnessed the detrimental impact on young students who miss out on fundamental early education," Rubio said, adding, "This bill is critical to the academic development and success of all students in the state, especially now during a global pandemic."

Educators agree, noting the pandemic has highlighted and accentuated the achievement gap. "Kindergarten is an essential part of a student’s development," Beutner said. "This opportunity for children is made more urgent due to the drop in kindergarten enrollment because of the impact this pandemic is having on families in low-income communities."