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Access to Pre-School Being Cut at Linda Vista

August 21, 2011

The trouble came to Noemi Zermeno in an envelope. She spotted it when she was dropping off her three kids at their Linda Vista preschool, tucked into the binder where she signs them in and out.

“I started panicking,” she said.

The single mom can see the preschool from her front door. She had just moved to the little beige duplex across Jewett Street, wanting to live closer to the school she and her children adore.

Now that preschool was out of reach. The letter in that envelope tipped her off: California had cut Zermeno out of public preschool, saying she made too much money. And with three kids to care for, Zermeno discovered that even the cheapest private preschools would chew up half of her paychecks as a dental assistant.

So Zermeno made a choice: She cut back her hours to make sure she could stay in public preschool. The new rules say that families of four cannot make much more than $3,900 a month. Zermeno has to count her hours carefully every week.

There is a boom in national buzz about preschool, bolstered by stacks of studies that show a good preschool can get stunning results much later in life. Less crime. Fewer dropouts. More success.

At the same time, a broke California is shutting out thousands of children from preschool. More than 25,000 out of 240,000 spots in public preschools and other child care programs are expected to disappear this year, the Oakland nonprofit Children Now estimates.

Half of the toddlers who scrawl their names and practice animal sounds with smiling teachers will disappear from the Linda Vista preschool that Zermeno can see from her front door, the Jeff and Deni Jacobs Child Development Center.

Cozy rooms full of jigsaw puzzles and kiddie furniture will be mothballed in the hopes that funding will bounce back and let them reopen again.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” said Celine Krimston, vice president of programs for Educational Enrichment Systems, the nonprofit that runs the Linda Vista site and many other preschools. She thinks it will cost the state in the long run. “I wish Sacramento could show us their math.”

The old joke about “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” may not be such a joke after all when it comes to preschool. Back in the ‘60s, researchers decided to follow a crop of disadvantaged Michigan children to adulthood. Some went to an excellent preschool and others didn’t go to preschool at all.

It ended up being one of the most famous education experiments ever done. Decades later, researchers found that as the Michigan preschoolers grew up and became adults, they were more likely to graduate, less likely to turn to crime and half as likely to go on welfare as the kids who didn’t go to preschool.

All in all, the Michigan study estimated that for every dollar spent on the preschool program, the public saved sixteen dollars in welfare, court costs and taxes. Other studies have found that kids who go to good preschools are less likely to be labeled with a disability, less likely to repeat a grade, and more likely to ace state tests. Quality preschools seem to prime children for school and life in enduring ways.

Those hefty results may seem surprising for something that looks so little like studying.

Walk into the preschool that Zermeno sacrificed to keep her children in and you’ll see burbling four- and five-year-olds mashing clay and riding tricycles. Kids peel and paste animal stickers. One whinnies like a horse.

“It’s a little secret that they’re learning,” joked director Patricia Smith as she circled a colorful classroom lined with seedlings and picture books. “We just don’t tell them!”

Smith points out some of the things they’re picking up. Shapes and colors. Fine motor skills. Recognizing letters. Children from poorer homes are often exposed to far fewer words than their better-off-classmates. So good preschools soak children in language. The Linda Vista teachers constantly question their tiny students about their animal stickers: How many cows do you have? What color is your chicken? What do the pigs say?

That isn’t idle talk. The National Institute for Early Education Research stresses that a good preschool does not mean lots of lectures or worksheets but chatter, creativity and play. It points to brain research that shows the gentle back-and-forth between a child and an adult helps their mind expand.

“It’s not sitting there watching TV and eating Froot Loops for breakfast,” said Arnulfo Manriquez, president and CEO of the Chicano Federation, which runs preschool programs in San Diego County.

That may be why the best results come from preschools with fewer children per teacher, lots of small group activities and one-on-one attention. It also helps to have educated teachers who understand how children learn — and what to do to nudge them along — instead of just babysitting.

And experts believe the results of preschool are not just tied to ABCs and 123s. They tout preschools that explicitly teach personal skills like taking turns, sharing and following directions that seem to pay off much later in life in better decisions like avoiding crime and waiting to have kids.

“We can actually train teachers to teach these things,” said W. Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Barnett argued that even Simon Says is more than a silly game. It teaches children to control their behavior when someone else asks them to. That skill still matters later, Barnett explained: Do you smack the kid who bumps into you? If you are struggling with reading, do you stick with it and try again?

Those life lessons play out in little ways at the Linda Vista preschool.

One tiny girl scolded her classmate when he didn’t put his extra stickers back. “You have to put it in the tub.” The little boy pulled the tub close to him and far from her. “No! Not there! Put it in the middle!” she exclaimed.

“Please. Please put it in the middle,” teacher Carol Brewer reminded her.

Back across the street, Zermeno recounts the changes she has seen in her oldest son. At age four, he used to babble incomprehensibly, so much so that he went into speech therapy. Zermeno would struggle to understand him and he would grow upset.

At the Linda Vista preschool, his language unfurled. Now at five he plays teacher to his little sister.

“He’ll say, ‘Christina, don’t fight. Get in line. It’s not your turn yet,'” Zermeno says with a smile.

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2 Comments
  1. Grace Valentine permalink

    A BBC miniseries from the 90s “Fall of Eagles” dramatizes the history that precipitated the end of the Imperial families of Germany, Austria and Russia. Bear with me, this train is going somewhere. Most of the US history taught about the cause of WWI is so obfuscated that none of my peers know why that war was fought. But it had to to with starving people, strikes, attempts to organize labor, to establish representative governing bodies – all the building blocks of democracy. And we fought with the Kings, the Czars, to prevent such democratic efforts from succeeding. We supported a simulacra and told the people it was liberty and freedom.

    The infiltration of unions and secret policing undertaken to thwart the establishment of a democratic society in Eastern Europe seems so criminal and foreign that we fail to see the co-opting of our own unions who, as far as my experience with SDEA, didn’t even want to address conditions of work, and almost gleefully cited these as contractually up to the principals who ruled the schools with impunity. And the toadies just got in line, turning on their brother and sister teachers with a ruthlessness that is sadly, all too well described in the literature on Workplace Bullying.

    Of course we want to save money, but only certain money. This nation jails more of it’s people than any other nation on the planet. It’s a burgeoning industry. There is a long view. These future criminals represent a dark social capital that will, like the Tsunami last year, put out the light of personal liberty and dignified work until the People stop it by refusing to be divided.

    Not likely in the land land of flat screen TVs and cheap (well, relatively cheap) fast food that fills but does not nourish, that pacifies but does not sate. Maybe not this year, but soon, this mother will not even be able to protest. She is very lucky she still has her job and that she is allowed to cut back her hours. This ability to decide where and when we will work is not going to be around a whole lot longer. But don’t listen to me. Listen to history.

  2. Interesting perspective. I do think that the privatization of corrections officers and the rates at which we imprison our citizens is borderline insane.

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