Santa Clara County is experiencing a drought in preschool funding, and it's taking a toll on Mountain View schools. Federal preschool grants skipped over California for next year, and the state is allowing a program to expire that funds 25 percent of the preschool spots in the Mountain View Whisman School District.
Rather than sit idly by, the school board agreed earlier this month to look at ways to help fund the difference and keep the existing preschool spots open, and possibly expand the program to bring down its long waiting list.
The state has been spending about $45 million each year since 2010 for the Child Signature Program to inject some much-needed money into preschool programs at school districts across the state. For the Mountain View Whisman School District, that adds up to 35 more preschool spots for families free of charge, according to Terri Wallace-Bielecki, the district's preschool director. When the program expires in 2016, those seats will vanish.
The loss of funding will also take away a lot of the cultural and socio-economic diversity in the preschool classrooms and restrict flexibility in enrollment for middle-income families and students with special needs, according to a district report. Once the Child Signature Program expires, a family of four making more than $47,000 a year would no longer qualify for enrollment because they exceed the income requirements.
Compounding the problem, California was not selected as a recipient for federal grant money for preschool expansion last fall, and of the several million dollars of state-wide grant money available for preschool expansion, Santa Clara County didn't receive a dime. Wallace-Bielecki said she's been working with advocacy organizations to lobby for expansion funds, increases in reimbursements rates and restore the funding preschool programs used to get prior to the recession. Even when it was clear there wasn't going to be money allocated to the county, she applied anyway.
"Literally anytime there's a glimmer of money (Wallace-Bielecki) has gone after it, and has been turned down each time despite her best efforts," said Terese McNamee, the district's chief business officer.
Wallace-Bielecki told the board at the April 2 meeting that if they want to keep the same number of preschool sessions, despite the Child Signature Program expiring, they would need to commit about $200,000 a year. The total cost of the program is about $600,000, all of which comes from the state. Board member Ellen Wheeler said it might be time for that to change.
"I, for one, would like to see our district spend some of its own money on this program that, I think, is of critical importance," Wheeler said.
Board president Chris Chiang agreed, and said it might be worth spending even more money -- something like $700,000 -- to make up for the lost seats and accommodate enrollment for the entire preschool waiting list.
When asked by fellow board members if he agreed, Bill Lambert said he was all for eliminating the waiting list in a "perfect world," but that the district hasn't located the funds it needs to pay for all the overwhelming wants and needs of the district.
So how do you pay for it? While Chiang suggested it might be good to take the issue to the community in the form of a parcel tax or seek the help of local tech companies like Google for grant money, board member Greg Coladonato said the district could have some middle and higher-income families pay to get in, effectively subsidizing the program and absorbing the costs of expansion.
Wallace-Bielecki said a $300 monthly tuition on a sliding scale would be enough, which is still substantially lower than the private preschools in the area that charge anywhere from $770 to $1,300 a month.
Importance of preschool
Despite the lack of funding, California state officials maintain that preschool is an important and integral part of early childhood education. Research shows that "quality early learning experiences" help prepare kids for long-term academic achievement, and is linked to reduced dropout rates, as well as reduced unemployment, substance abuse and crime, according to the California Children and Families Commission.
Thida Cornes, a parent, spoke in support of the preschool program and told the board that her son benefited greatly from preschool and wasn't ready to make the jump directly into kindergarten.
"When he entered preschool he could not hold a pencil, he could not write, he didn't know his letters and numbers. He couldn't talk to anyone," Cornes said.
Unfortunately, she said said, there are kids in kindergarten at Castro Elementary School who didn't get the same preparation, and they end up running into the same problems her son had.
"They're already behind and it's day one of kindergarten," she said.
As a member of the county's "Strong Start Committee," Wheeler said she's been telling everyone she talks to about the importance of early childhood education, and that there's a growing body of evidence showing that early childhood education gives the county its "biggest bang for our buck" in closing the achievement gap.
That quality education may not consist of reading, writing and math problems, though. Claire Koukoutsakis, director of the Mountain View Parent Nursery School, said their focus is to build a 'strong foundation" where students learn to think, observe and communicate with others, and learn how to flex their emotional and social skills rather than stick to cognitive exercises. That way, they will be attuned to the classroom environment and ready to go come kindergarten.
Koukoutsakis said preschool curriculum is pretty extensive, and that there's plenty of opportunities for kids to dip their toes into math, science, engineering, arts and math (STEAM).
"Yes, they will be able to learn to read and write when they're able to," she said.
The Mountain View Parent Nursery School, currently located on the Mountain View High School campus, took a similar budgetary hit back in 2010 when state funding ran out for adult education. Because the preschool runs out of the high school district's adult education program, it lost its funding and had to raise tuition rates to make up for it, Koukoutsakis said.
The "quality" early childhood education referred to in the studies appears to be right here in Mountain View, with Castro achieving one of the highest scores in the area.
A new rating system called the Quality Rating and Improvement System formally assesses the quality of a preschool program based on things like teacher qualification, teacher-child interactions and class size. Preschool classes are then given a score, with tier 1 being the worst and tier 5 being the best.
The preschool at Castro Elementary was one of two schools in Santa Clara County to earn a tier 5 score, and is one of only seven in the entire Bay Area. The others, Slater and Theuerkauf, earned a tier 4 rating.
Building for more
If the board decides to follow through with higher preschool enrollment, it's not clear where the extra students would go. Preschool classrooms have building requirements that are atypical to normal classrooms, including two bathrooms and an enclosed outdoor area with a play structure and a 4-foot fence. While this doesn't necessarily preclude a normal classroom from being used as a preschool room, it makes it tricky to reach those standards unless it was specifically built for it.
The ideal location for new preschools would be at or near the Castro area, where most of the low and middle-income families who qualify for state preschool live and are able to walk to the campus. Wallace-Bielecki said parents will frequently decline an offer for their children to attend preschool at the Theuerkauf or Slater because they wanted to attend the one at Castro Elementary.
Ideally, the entire preschool program would be at one facility in the Castro neighborhood, which would alleviate the strain on program supervision and collaboration between the schools, according to the staff report.
But preschools don't currently fit into plans to upgrade the Castro site using Measure G bond money. Board member Steve Nelson indicated he wasn't even sure if Measure G money could be used for preschools. Chiang said it might also be worth reaching out to the city to see if the improvements at Rengstorff Park in the coming years could include more preschool services.
"I'd welcome the district to have a conversation with them" Chiang said.