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San Diego County Preschools Ask What It Means To Be High-Quality

Students at the Hickory Street Head Start in Escondido set their own places and eat lunch family-style on Feb. 13, 2014. Serving meals this way teaches children independence and about sharing and talking with their classmates, according to Roxana Jalali, the program's director.

Aired 3/5/14 on KPBS News.

President Barack Obama is pushing the idea of free, high-quality preschool for every 4-year-old. Some San Diego County preschools are playing a role in defining what that might look like.

Getting more children into programs like the Head Start on Hickory street in Escondido seems to be a top priority for everyone from local legislators and education leaders to President Barack Obama.

Early on a recent Thursday afternoon, this Head Start program looked a little like controlled chaos. But within the sound of crashing blocks and singing kids, program director Roxana Jalali sees a very specific order to things.

“This is the block area, house area, the library, science area, manipulative, art, music," she said as she gestured to some of the 10 play areas set up in each classroom.

The areas for loud activities are far from the areas for quiet activities. There are specific kinds of toys and even specific ways to get ready for lunch.

While the teacher called students to the carpet and led them through a song about days of the week to help them remember the name for today, Thursday, her classroom aide cleared the tables of toys and cleaned each one.

With the tables ready, children were sent one by one to the sink to wash their hands. First, they wet their hands, then added soap and scrubbed for 20 seconds.

These routines are about health and learning.

“With washing hands and everything, they learn how to avoid germs. They are talking about this all the time," Jalali said.

In another classroom, lunch is over.

Some students are painting, others are playing house, and two little boys are building trucks with oversized Legos.

Teachers circle the room, asking questions. One little girl talks to a teacher about the panda toy she is playing with and what pandas eat the zoo.

Again, Jalali said, this isn’t just play, this is learning.

“You want them to start talking, to make phrases and to interact with each other," she said. "Then they want them to think, they want them to learn the cognitive, to become problem-solvers.”

Jalali’s Head Start program is part of the Quality Preschool Initiative run by First 5 San Diego and the San Diego County Office of Education.

Outside observers come twice a year to look for details from proper hand washing and classroom safety to the quality of teacher-student interaction and that classrooms have the right kinds of blocks and toys.

Coaches also visit classrooms every week to work with teachers like Vanessa León.

“I was really scared maybe having to stick to what I was doing from my lesson plan," the first-year teacher said. "She was like ‘no, sometimes you can just go off of what the kids do.’ Last time we were reading a book and they saw a spider web on the ceiling and we started talking about spider webs and that led into our next week’s planning session. Stuff like that was really helpful.”

Jalali credits this support with helping her Head Start center reach five out of five stars on the quality initiative’s rating scale, which means the program gets an additional $2,500 per child. That has made new floors, better classroom materials and more resources for parents at the center possible.

The quality improvement program and the extra funding are supported, in part, by federal education grants targeted at improving preschools across the country.

President Barack Obama has been talking about making free preschool available to every 4-year-old in the country for a couple of years and included the idea in the 2015 budget he proposed Monday. He and other advocates point to research they believe shows every dollar spent on preschool can save taxpayers between $4 and $7 in the future. They argue putting more children in preschool, especially those whose first language isn't English and who come from low-income households, can reduce the number of high school dropouts, unemployment and incarceration.

But, Gloria Corral, assistant executive director at First 5 San Diego, said getting more underserved kids into preschool won’t be enough.

“The overall participation rate on preschool doesn’t account for quality, and all of the research shows it’s not just going to a preschool setting — it’s having quality experiences,” she said.

The Obama administration envisions this effort to improve quality stretching beyond government-funded programs like Head Start or California's state preschool programs. Those programs reach a small portion of the children from lower income households who are even eligible for them.

In North County, just 7 percent of eligible children are in a Head Start program and only 2 percent of eligible infants and toddlers receive free child care, according to MAAC, the nonprofit that Jalali's Head Start is part of.

That's why one goal of the federal preschool grants is to create a universal understanding of what high-quality early education looks like.

“Helping those disparate programs become a real system," said Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary of early learning for the U.S. Department of Education. "So that eventually whether a child is in child care, head start or pre-k, they’ll all be getting a high quality education.”

But creating a uniform definition of quality — and supporting it through federal grants — doesn’t sit well with everyone.

“I think parents want and kids need some variety in what they’re getting," said Grover Whitehurst, a researcher with the Brookings Institute. "So the notion that every child in America would be in a pre-K program with a curriculum tied to the Common Core and every Thursday in November we know what every kid is getting throughout the nation, I think is dangerous.”

Whitehurst wants more information for parents. He would funnel money directly to families instead of preschools.

Back in Vanessa León’s classroom, she has a clear idea of what children should get if their preschool is successful.

“Everyone wants them to learn their alphabet, their name, academic stuff. And I do want them to learn that stuff, but for me, I feel like they have to be emotionally stable and they have to be able to socialize with other children in order to learn all of that,” she said.

Now the question is whether the current investment in improving preschool quality will lead us to us a clearer understanding of how best to prepare kids for the rest of their education.

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