Starting in 2025, transitional kindergarten will be available to all California 4-year-olds. While a win for accessibility—all families will be able to access transitional kindergarten through public school, regardless of their ability to pay—it also means that California will have a shortage of about 10,000 to 14,000 early childhood educators.

But with an $11 million gift from the Ballmer Group—the largest gift ever given to the College of Education at Cal State Long Beach—the university will soon be able to offer a credential program for early childhood educators, a step toward meeting the need for the nearly 400,000 4-year-olds who may soon be enrolling in transitional kindergarten.

“This has really created a critical need for us to prepare those folks to enter and complete the PK-3 credential so that they can fill those teaching positions when the law goes into effect,” said CSULB Dean of the College of Education Anna Ortiz.

Developing the new credential program is in the works, Ortiz said. The process involves not only creating the program but going through an approval process with the university, as well as with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Although this is typically about a two-year process, the Ballmer Group grant has helped accelerate the effort by supporting faculty and administrative time, said Ortiz, who hopes that the program will be presented to the commission around mid-November, and can begin accepting students for the following fall.

But more importantly, said Ortiz, the funds will support 290 students over the course of five years to complete the credential, whether it’s a student just beginning a bachelor’s degree, a transfer student, a student already enrolled in CSULB’s Liberal Studies or child development program, or a student already working as an early childhood educator who didn’t complete their bachelor’s. About 80% of the $11 million will go directly to students.

Additionally, some funds will support the expansion of existing programs with the Long Beach Unified School District providing more opportunities for students to work in the district while pursuing their credential, said Ortiz.

According to Ortiz, the initiative will not only support equity for children, whose families may have otherwise not been able to afford an early childhood program, but also for early childhood educators.

“I’m very excited for the 4-year-olds, but I’m really excited to really bring this level of professionalism to early childhood education, that sometimes doesn’t exist as widely as it should,” Ortiz said.

With the credential, early childhood educators will have a pathway to work in public schools, and will be qualified to teach up to third grade.

“Early childhood educators are the lowest paid professionals in education, and this credential will give them access to all the benefits of being a public school teacher, so elevated salary, regular benefits, retirement programs, things that aren’t always open to early childhood educators, especially those who are practicing without a bachelor’s degree,” Ortiz said.

Both locally and statewide, the teaching force doesn’t necessarily reflect the student population, but the partnership between the university and Ballmer will help to increase the diversity and cultural competence of educators—which helps improve students’ learning, while building self-esteem and confidence, Ortiz said.

“That’s a central part of all of our curriculum building right now,” she said.

In addition to gifting CSULB, Ballmer Group also granted $22 million for Cal State Dominguez Hills in support of similar programs.

“Early education is a game-changer for giving kids a fair shot in school and life,” said Kim Brownson, director of Strategy and Policy at Ballmer Group in a statement. “Teachers are vital to this work, and CSUDH and CSULB will now be able to support LA’s future early educators through scholarships, degree programs and partnerships to support our children’s learning.”

To Ortiz, the whole field of early childhood education is often overlooked, both by the community in general, as well as by educational institutions.

“I think what this gift has done for early childhood education, is it really is giving us a boost in terms of professionalizing that area, and providing more opportunities for our students who really want to work with young children. … This grant, and the credential, itself gives a whole other dimension to their career,” Ortiz said.

The grant solidifies the trust that Ballmer has for the university to develop a culturally responsive and sustaining program, which will engage the community as students, as well as bringing students to the community, Ortiz said.

“It’s an investment, definitely in LA County, but I’m proud that they also want to invest in Long Beach,” Ortiz said. “We’re just thrilled, it means a lot to us.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Cal State Dominguez Hills.