The preschoolers are everywhere on this playground, busily digging in a sandbox, snaking bumper-to-bumper aboard tricycles careful to dodge the grown-ups. Near the planters, a curious group gathers to watch a dragonfly that touched down on the leaves.
It’s play time at Learning Ladders Preschool and Child Care Center at West Sacramento Community Center, but these 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds are learning, too, gaining the skills they will need to move on to kindergarten and beyond.
They are part of a citywide preschool program that, nine years on, has become a California model and gained national attention for its ambitious charge: making quality education available, accessible and affordable for every child 5-years-old and younger.
As state and national leaders debate how to broaden preschool access, West Sacramento last month was named “most livable” small city in the nation by the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the strength of its Universal Preschool for West Sacramento program.
Advocates and local officials point to the benefits of preschool programs down the road, from improved reading, language and math skills in elementary school to higher high school graduation rates, fewer contacts with law enforcement and increased adult earnings. The city estimates that 70 percent to 80 percent of its 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool, compared to 63 percent statewide.
“We’re seeing the impacts of poverty, of second-language learners – they all impact the educational system,” said Justine Jimenez, West Sacramento’s director of early learning services, which oversees Universal Preschool for West Sacramento. “The best way to impact this is to work with the youngest children. You can reach them. If they’re in the third grade and they’re struggling or failing at reading, it’s a tougher fight.”
Known by its shorthand, UP4WS is a network of preschool providers – city and state preschools, Head Start and private home-based care. All work with Washington Unified School District, the state children’s health program First 5 and the Yolo County Office of Education to provide teachers and child care, facilities and funding, and most of all, access.
The UP4WS program began with just 135 children in 2006-2007, but has grown to more than 600. The coalition of agencies works together to maximize state and federal funds and create additional slots for low-income children who qualify for subsidized preschool and child care.
It also uses money to fund a handful of scholarships for families who earn too much to qualify for free preschool but for whom the cost of preschool would be prohibitive. In California, the average cost to attend preschool at a center was nearly $8,000 a year in 2012, according to the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network.
Beyond that, UP4WS offers instructional materials, training and other resources for preschool centers and home-based care providers. It brings multilingual teachers, mental health and family support professionals to the classroom and to work with families.
UP4WS has focused on improving the quality of instruction, serving as the credentialing agency for preschools in the city. Preschools in the program must maintain free, clean, accessible licensed facilities; perform annual self-assessments; maintain appropriate staff-to-child ratios; and help teachers reach degree and credentialing goals. Many of the teachers have bachelor’s degrees – or are studying to get them with an emphasis on early childhood education.
The program largely serves high-need families who may need intensive services, said Kristi Koumjian, a senior research associate at Harder and Co. Community Research, which analyzes the program. Nearly 30 percent speak a language other than English and a full 58 percent live at or below the federal poverty line, according to a Harder survey of parents.
Today, about $3 million a year come from an assortment of funds including about $1 million combined from First 5 California and local counterpart First 5 Yolo, as well as from city sales taxes. Local matches from the Yolo County Office of Education, Washington Unified School District and nonprofit health network Communicare, along with community-based organizations, also go into the pot.
Talina Camilli, an early education expert at Washington Unified, said her district has seen “significant gains” from children who participated in UP4WS in English language development, as well as cognitive and math development. Nine years in, however, UP4WS is just starting to track the progress of grade-schoolers who went through the program, Koumjian said.
Costs of studies and staff, a transitory population and recessionary budget cuts all made consistent tracking difficult, Jimenez said. Just last year, the program commissioned its first kindergarten study to follow 210 preschoolers now in Washington Unified schools.
“I don’t think we know (their progress) yet – that’s why we have the study,” Koumjian said. “How are the kids performing overall? How have they performed compared to those who didn’t (attend preschool)?”
Child advocates have praised the way in which West Sacramento has harnessed the patchwork of preschool resources available.
“You’ve got different providers, you have the county Office of Education, First 5, the city. West Sacramento has really set a bar for quality – to get universal access to quality,” said Ted Lempert, executive director of Oakland-based Children Now. “All of the players are so heavily involved. You don’t see that that often. That the city and private providers are so involved, it’s a powerful model.”
The model, West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon says, was born from nagging necessity. State preschool was “very limited,” he said. It ran out of money and wasn’t available to every family. If the family was low-income, there were too few classrooms. Many working families, he said, needed a mix of preschool and child care.
Cabaldon and other leaders also confronted their city’s history. With a reputation as a well-worn industrial hub with few opportunities, the city has struggled with high unemployment and low education. One of every three children in West Sacramento lives below the poverty line, much higher than the statewide average.
Expanding access to early childhood education was seen as a way to change that trajectory.
“The city had had a persistent problem with educational attainment and employment,” Cabaldon said. “That has been the case for generations in this community. The most powerful intervention happens in the early years (but) cities are barely involved in early education. There was a recognition that there’s this real potential here.”
The West Sacramento program has done well coordinating existing programs and providing support to preschools. But it is not universal in the way that state and federal leaders have discussed, which is funding slots for low- and middle-class families well beyond the income limits currently in place. Such programs would cost billions of dollars to implement across California and the nation.
President Barack Obama for two years has proposed “Preschool for All,” which would subsidize spots for all 4-year-olds whose households earn up to $47,700 for a family of four, or twice the federal poverty level, but the plan has gotten little traction in Congress.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, initially sought free preschool for all California 4-year-olds this year at a cost of $1.5 billion annually. But Gov. Jerry Brown was opposed to the costly new initiative, and Democrats compromised on a $264 million plan that adds thousands of preschool slots for poor children.
Momentum and money are flowing to preschool education, but Oakland-based Children Now says just 15 percent of California 3- and 4-year-olds are in high-quality center-based programs led by early childhood professionals. Less than 25 percent of preschool teachers have a degree in an early childhood-related subject, while low wages lead to high turnover.
State and federal funds are available for low-income families, but middle-class households that earn just beyond the federal poverty level of $23,850 for a family of four find it difficult to afford high-quality care. Centers that pay higher wages can cost thousands more than the statewide $8,000 average a year, particularly in coastal areas with a high cost of living.
“What we know is that truly every child should have access to these programs,” Lempert said. “You don’t want an opportunity gap before you even get into kindergarten. It’s a frightening gap. How do we make sure every child has access?”