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What is preventing Sonoma from reaching ‘preschool for all’?

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What is available for free:

All district-run preschool classes are half- day. The district runs preschool classrooms at three sites:

1. El Verano hosts one three-hour morning class for 24 students and one three-hour afternoon class for 24 students

2. Prestwood hosts one three-hour morning class for 16 students and one three-hour afternoon class for 16 students

3. Sassarini hosts one four-hour morning class for 24 students

Priority is given to four-year-olds over three-year-olds. For the 2019-2020 school year all spots are full, except for a few spots available reserved for students with IEPs. There is a short wait list.

If free preschool is available in Sonoma, why aren’t all of its 3 and 4-year-olds in class?

That question is at the center of a new study commissioned by the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation to survey the preschool landscape in the Valley.

A decade ago, about a third of all Valley kindergartners arrived for the first day of school having attended either public or private preschool. In 2012, that number was 50 percent. For the past few years, the number has held steady at 80 percent. And the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation wants to know what it will take to move the needle toward 100 percent.

“Early childhood education experiences are important to the future success of our students,” said Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Socorro Shiels.

Working in collaboration with the school district, the Education Foundation has hired early childhood education consultant Rob Corso to conduct the study. According to district officials, Corso has more than 30 years of experience in early childhood education as a provider, a researcher and an administrator.

Corso says that his recommendations will center on quality, equity and access. Specifically, he says, the quality of options available in Sonoma Valley, whether families have access to the kind of programs they want, and whether there are barriers to these programs for lower income families, families of students with disabilities or families for whom English is not their first language.

Corso said his work can be categorized in five areas:

1. Demographics – How many students can the district expect to enter kindergarten?

2. What should the model be? What are the current families’ barriers to attending? What should the district offer: full or half day? Can the district adequately provide services to students with disabilities, undocumented students, English language learners, etc.

3. What are the workforce issues in terms of preschool teacher support and professional development?

4. What are the best practices for measuring district outcomes?

5. What is the road map to the future? Recommendations for design and funding.

Initially, Corso will meet with local teachers, parents and other preschool stakeholders in order to better understand Sonoma’s existing offerings.

“Then, we need to figure out who’s out there,” said El Verano principal Maite Iturri, who is temporarily serving as the district’s preschool director. (The district is in the process of hiring a full-time director for next year, a position funded by the Education Foundation.)

“We fund it, they run it,” said Angela Ryan, the foundation’s director of programs and grants, about the district’s preschool program. “The study will help us understand both the preschool landscape here and our potential student population.”

Corso is reaching out to all of the district’s community partners, including La Luz Center, First 5, Head Start, Hanna Institute, Community Child Care Council, as well as private preschool and family child care providers, to gain a clearer understanding of early childhood education in Sonoma Valley.

The district’s preschool program currently includes 104 students in five classrooms at three sites. The balance of the 300 students entering kindergarten in Sonoma each year either attend private preschools, state or federally funded centers or opt out altogether.

According to Ryan, around 85 percent of students currently enrolled in district preschool classes are English learners, meaning English is not their first language or the language primarily spoken at home.

What is available for free:

All district-run preschool classes are half- day. The district runs preschool classrooms at three sites:

1. El Verano hosts one three-hour morning class for 24 students and one three-hour afternoon class for 24 students

2. Prestwood hosts one three-hour morning class for 16 students and one three-hour afternoon class for 16 students

3. Sassarini hosts one four-hour morning class for 24 students

Priority is given to four-year-olds over three-year-olds. For the 2019-2020 school year all spots are full, except for a few spots available reserved for students with IEPs. There is a short wait list.

“English language learners need more time with the language and more time in a school setting,” agrees Iturri. “Preschool is a must. It is critical for these students to be ready for kindergarten.”

Superintendent Shiels said that she is grateful that the Education Foundation recognizes the importance of such learning opportunities, “especially for our students who have historically not had them.”

With two-thirds of Sonoma Valley’s students across the district are considered to be socio-economically disadvantaged, “paying for preschool is not a luxury that most can afford,” said Ryan.

“As kindergarten standards and expectations have increased over the years, preschool has become critical to students’ future success,” added Iturri.

High quality early childhood education represents one of the best investments the country can make, according to the National Education Association, which has funded studies that show that children in quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, need special education, or get into future trouble with the law.

“Students who enter kindergarten with at least one year of preschool are more likely to succeed academically and advance in social-emotional development,” says Corso. They transition better and they hit the ground running to learn, he says. Preschool also involves parents in school communities.

“Studies now confirm without a doubt that kids who have one or two years of preschool have real advantages in terms of readiness assessments,” said Corso, while also stressing the socio-emotional advantages. “Students learn how to make friends, how to problem solve, how to persist and how to self-regulate. The more powerful benefits are in this area.”

As for whether one year or two years is better, Corso calls that “the dosage issue.” For less-advantaged families, he says, the more the better.

“A half a day for a year is just not enough for most students,” he said.

But preschool is expensive. A half-day class is about $92,000 per classroom, or $4,500 per student. And all 104 district-run preschool spots are 100 percent tuition free; preschools run by other area nonprofits tend to offer spaces on a sliding scale and private preschool tends to cost between $3,000 and $15,000 a year.

Corso began work in January and expects to be able to present his report in July.

The Education Foundation did not disclose the cost of the study, saying only that it is fully funded by an anonymous donor from outside the Valley.

“Our donors are passionate about this issue,” said Ryan.

Email lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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