In the latest move to improve early childhood education in the district, Mountain View Whisman school board members voted unanimously to pilot full-day preschool that will be offered at a fraction of the price of local private preschools.
Starting this fall, the school district will offer up to 24 spots for children to enroll in full-day preschool, which lasts seven hours instead of three. Full-day programs offer more instructional time for students and greater freedom for parents -- particularly in low-income families -- to pursue work and educational opportunities.
The full-day preschool would cost $350 per month for families making less than $71,065 each year.
The decision by trustees at the March 1 board meeting follows a string of votes by school board members to improve the preschool program since 2015, which cumulatively have expanded the program, raised the income eligibility requirements and opened the door for families from all income brackets -- even those who don't meet state income requirements -- to apply for the lower-cost preschool. The school board also voted to dip into the district's coffers in 2015 in order to keep preschool spots open when state funding dried up.
Since 2015, the number of available preschool spaces has increased from 140 to 224 -- split between the Theuerkauf and Castro elementary school campuses.
The board's most vocal proponent of preschool education, Ellen Wheeler, told the Voice that the school district has done an enviable job of expanding preschool access compared to the rest of Santa Clara County.
Wheeler said much of the credit goes to preschool director Terri Wallace, who is on the ball whenever state money becomes available or a state law makes it easier for families to enroll for state-subsidized preschool. Eligibility requirements raised the income ceiling for families to apply under Assembly Bill 2368, which was authored by former State Assemblyman Rich Gordon and went into effect in January. Under the revised guidelines, the district doesn't charge any preschool tuition if a family of four makes $71,065 or less a year.
"Now we can finally have a full-day preschool operating at the same hours as regular elementary schools," Wheeler said. "Wallace has been working on this for quite a while. It hasn't been easy, but we are ahead of most of the county in what we can offer now."
Families earning too much under the state preschool eligibility guidelines can still apply, but the cost climbs quickly. Families making up to $8,624 in gross monthly income -- regardless of family size -- would pay $1,000 each month under the proposed fee schedule, and families making over $8,625 would pay $1,150. The schedule is still a fairly good deal compared to private preschool rates in Mountain View, which range from $1,150 to $1,650 per month, according to the staff report.
The downside to the pilot is that, by offering full-day preschool in the same number of classrooms that have hosted two daily half-day programs, fewer children can attend. The available spots drop from 224 to 198 under the full-day pilot, according to a district staff report.
Despite that loss, Wallace said the pilot comes on the heels of a survey that found the vast majority of parents -- 89 percent of respondents -- were interested in a full, seven-hour program, which helps meet the needs of lower-income families with fewer options for child care.
The benefits to preschool students and their families have been well-documented over the years. A 2006 study by the National Institute for Early Education Research found that students, even those who are behind on vocabulary and literacy skills, can benefit and become ready for kindergarten through "extended-duration" preschool. The longer preschool day led to higher performance on both vocabulary and math skills compared to part-day preschool students, the study found, leading to better academic performance through at least the spring of first grade.
"While further research is needed to augment this study of half-day versus extended-day preschool education, the results clearly indicate that duration matters," the study said. "Extended-day preschool of good quality had dramatic and lasting effects on children's learning across a broad range of knowledge and skills."
The study goes on to say that some children, particularly from low-income families with working parents, may miss out on preschool education altogether if half-day preschool is the only available option.
A 2016 report by the Urban Institute looked specifically at Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, where 3- and 4-year-old children from families making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line are less likely to enroll in early childhood education than wealthier families. About half of these lower-income families are single-parent families or have two working parents, making it difficult to get children to and from part-day preschool during the work day.
At the board meeting, Wheeler said that the district's foray into full-day preschool is "unusual" in the sense that most school districts in the county and around the state do not offer the option at all, and described Wallace as somewhat of a trailblazer for taking the initiative.
"A lot of people are watching us, and they are very interested in (Wallace's) work," she said.