School district eyes expanded preschool
EL VERANO ELEMENTARY SCHOOL preschool teacher Elida Guerrero (middle top) leads circle time with 4- and 5-year-olds during counting exercise as kids respond to the question, “How many arms does an octopus have?”
Gary DeSmet is emphatic about the need to offer preschool.
“There is no initiative more important in Sonoma Valley education than figuring out a way to provide free preschool for all,” said DeSmet, a member of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District board.
“Recent studies show that two years of preschool levels the playing field for children entering kindergarten,” he added, “no matter what the income level or the educational background of their parents.”
DeSmet is a man on a mission, and he is pleased that the district has clearly made “two years of preschool for all” one of its five primary goals. To DeSmet, that is job one.
A few hours in El Verano’s preschool gives you renewed faith in the future of the Valley’s children. The 20 4- and 5-year-olds observed in the afternoon session are enthusiastic, polite and engaged. Their love of learning is pure and unbridled. With almost 20 years of experience teaching, El Verano Preschool Director Terra Stephens has established a multi-sensory curriculum that meets California state standards but also uses the most acclaimed current techniques.
Even more important, perhaps, than the academic foundation being built during these preschool years, is the socialization that occurs. “By coming to preschool, these students are now comfortable in an academic setting. They are comfortable with circle time, with sharing, with transitions, and as a result, they hit the ground running in kindergarten, reading to learn and able to meet grade level expectations,” Stephens said.
For students whose families do not speak English at home, the hours of conversation and instruction in English also give them a valuable head start on their peers. District-wide, close to 60 percent of all students entering kindergarten are English-language learners. At El Verano preschool, staff estimates that number to be 95 percent.
After scraping together grants, donations and limited government funding earmarked for preschool programs, El Verano currently offers a morning class to 24 and an afternoon class to 20 students. They have a waiting list, however, and that leaves most families for whom private preschool is not economically feasible, with their children unable to attend.
Historically, half of all Sonoma students have entered kindergarten without any preschool experience, primarily from Latino families. But this is a statistic that DeSmet and the district are determined to change.
In 2006, 73 percent of the students starting kindergarten at El Verano had not had any preschool. Last year, because of the free on-site program, that number had dropped to 44 percent, and this year, the addition of an afternoon class enabled that number to drop to 13 percent at El Verano.
Will access to preschool be the magic solution to the district’s lack-luster standardized test scores that have remained stagnant for years? Most educators believe it should, but studies indicate it takes two years of quality preschool for the real results to kick in. And district-wide, 44 percent of the 300 or so estimated incoming kindergarten students next fall will still not have ever encountered an academic setting. Even these El Verano students will only have had one year.
The district is exploring every possible funding source to expand its preschool offerings, but realistically, it is expected that the funding will need to come from private sources. And the cost is not insignificant.
The district estimates it would cost $372,000 annually to provide a year of preschool to that 44 percent. While this is a big number, DeSmet urges the public to consider how much higher the cost is for 13 or more years of future remediation for these students.
A long-term study of children in a low-income preschool program in Michigan in the 1960s, and followed for 40 years afterward, found that the public gained $12.90 for every $1 spent on the program. Early childhood care and education is thought to deliver a higher rate of return per dollar invested than any investment in skills at any other point in life, including schooling, college, and job training.
“Students who enter kinder with a year or more of preschool tend to need less intervention later,” said Maite Iturri. Iturri has been principal of El Verano for seven years and the preschool program has been her baby.
Today in Sonoma, there are three publicly-funded preschool programs: El Verano, which serves 45 students; Head Start (housed at Flowery Elementary School), which serves 33 students and a small 4Cs program (Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County) at Sassarini Elementary School that serves 20 students.
There are a dozen or more private preschools that serve perhaps 100 additional 4-year-olds.
At El Verano, the students enjoy a scaffolding curriculum that builds on what they know from home life and their culture. The program is sensory-based and thematic. “With kinder getting more and more academic, preschool is more critical than ever to prepare students for an academic setting,” explained Stephens. While a great deal of Spanish is used in the early weeks, the goal is to conduct the entire class in English by the end of the year.
Twice a year, parents get an update on their child’s development and suggestions of things to do at home. “We only have three hours with them here each day,” Stephens said. “It’s crucial that the parents reinforce what is happening in the classroom at home.”
Parents also are asked to volunteer in the classroom. “Our goal is for the parents to feel comfortable with us and in this academic setting,” she added.
Stephens said that students who enter kindergarten with even one year of preschool work better together, they transition better and they hit the ground running to learn. “They don’t have to waste time talking about how to sit in a chair, how circle time works or how to line up.”
It is now common wisdom that the years before kindergarten are essential for intellectual growth. “We need to make it our mission that half of our population here in Sonoma is not left behind before they even reach kindergarten,” DeSmet insists.
School Superintendent Louann Carlomagno added, ”As everyone well knows, our district has limited resources and a number of critically important initiatives, but we feel strongly that preschool for all is crucial to ensuring the success of all of our students.”