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Too Few Preschools—What If Day Cares Were Smarter?

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The new White House has pumped the brakes on universal preschool, meaning San Diego's existing patchwork of preschools and day cares will likely stand for some time. Here is an effort to mend some of its holes.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

A 4-year-old named Evelyn counts plastic bears, Jan. 19, 2017.

A 4-year-old named Evelyn plucks small plastic bears from a bin and lines them up in a neat row.

"One, two, three," she counts, pointing to each one.

"Now if we give two to Tina, how many do you have left?" asks Gloria Smith. Evelyn pushes two of the bears aside and counts again.

Smith runs a childcare center out of her daughter's La Mesa home. The family room is carved up into sections — the study area for math and science, a stocked bookcase and floor cushions for reading, and a whiteboard and craft table for art.

Smith's business didn't always look like this. About 18 months ago, a specialist came by to grade it. Smith isn't shy about the results.

"All the way down, 'F,'" she said. "I failed. I know I didn't have what the kids needed."

The review was voluntary. Family childcare providers like Smith only need the state to sign off on basic health and safety standards to get licensed. The "F" grades were for standards laid out for publicly run childcare centers such as Head Start and preschools.

"We focus on the environment — that they have age-appropriate activities and materials," said Kathy Isidoro, a childcare consultant. "But we also focus on the interaction — that they have positive redirection with (the children), that they're using the proper tone, that there's a language-rich environment with books and songs."

Isidoro is with the YMCA Childcare Resource Service and has been coaching Smith ever since the bad review. It is part of a program led by the San Diego County Office of Education that's helping 40 family childcare providers in San Diego increase academic rigor for 423 children at their sites.

In the absence of universal preschool — California lawmakers have resisted calls for such an expensive initiative and President Donald Trump favors tax credits to help parents afford childcare — early childhood education experts are working with what they've got.

In San Diego County, that is a patchwork of 3,693 family childcare providers and 960 of the more formal child care centers, according to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. And it is struggling to fill a persistent need. Together, these centers are only able to serve about 30 percent of children with working parents.

"So the childcare centers take on that much more of an important role," said Shaina Gross of United Way of San Diego County. The nonprofit put $500,000 into the two-year program.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Gloria Smith sings, "Head, shoulders, knees and toes," with two girls in her La Mesa childcare center, Jan. 19, 2017.

In addition to one-on-one coaching, participants receive 100 books, money for materials and iPads with software that tracks each child's development. Kids who aren't meeting benchmarks get referrals for outside services, something that might not happen until kindergarten for children in home-based childcare.

"Think about if you have an extra two or three years to work on something," Gross said. Improving the quality of these lower-cost childcare centers, she said, can level the playing field when kids get to kindergarten, especially when it comes to language development.

"We know in low-income homes there are a lower number of words heard every day, every year," Gross said. "Often that's because families are working multiple jobs to make ends meet. There isn't dedicated time to sit down and read with your kids."

Not reading enough to children is a problem, because what happens in early childhood drives achievement in later years.

"We know that if kids aren't reading at grade level by the end of third grade then they're four times less likely to graduate high school on time," Gross said. "But that doesn't all happen in third grade. Those seeds have already been planted years before."

Day care provider Smith has enough copies of the books she reads aloud that the children can follow along. And she sends them home with folders full of worksheets so parents can see their progress.

In May, the program organizers will get assessment results that will tell them whether their efforts have made a difference in the children.

But Isidoro said there is already a noticeable difference among the family childcare providers, who often are dismissed as babysitters.

"It gives them a sense of belonging, that they're part of this group, that they're important and it's not just the state-funded programs," Isidoro said. "Because they are providing an important service. Like, you can see she's full."

Smith sees her first child at 6 a.m. The last goes home at 11 p.m. But she isn't complaining. Smith said she wants to do as much as she can for the children in her day care.

"They're not like my day care kids, they're like my kids, and they call me grandma," she said. "My granddaughter calls me Gloria, but the rest call me grandma."

Parents can find participating childcare centers by calling the YMCA's childcare referral line, 800-481-2151. They are located predominantly in City Heights and Vista.

But there may soon be a much longer list of family childcare providers who meet the more stringent standards. Advocates are pushing for the state to begin rating all childcare centers the way it does preschools. In the meantime, the state has promised $1.6 million to expand the program in San Diego County.


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