Shelly Potter sat in a circle of 4-year-old children Tuesday clapping her hands and shaking a tambourine.
Potter and her preschool class are recent additions to Natomas Park Elementary School. New state funds allowed Natomas Unified to double the number of half-day preschool classes to eight – a total of 100 new seats – for this school year, district spokesman Jim Sanders said.
Other districts weren’t so lucky. Some could add only a preschool class or two. Many others, pressed for space, had to leave the state money on the table because they didn’t have room to accommodate new students.
The space crunch comes at a bad time. Additional preschool seats are desperately needed, experts said.
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“There is so much brain research that shows the first five years are critical years,” said Sarah Neville Morgan, deputy director of the state’s First 5 California program. “It’s sort of like the foundation. If you build a crappy foundation and don’t put quality materials in it, it is going to crumble.”
A recent report by the American Institute for Research says California leads the nation with its large population of young children but is among the 15 states with the worst outcomes for youths, such as dropout rates and poverty.
The report calls for increased access to quality preschool programs to promote school readiness and academic success.
Lawmakers partly addressed the problem with a funding hike.
The state budget, approved in June, increased funds for preschool and transitional kindergarten by $129 million compared with last fiscal year. Most of that money went to preschool, including $54 million for part-day classes and $36 million for full-day classes.
An additional $39 million went to transitional kindergarten, the first year of a two-year kindergarten program for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, said Robert Oakes, a spokesman for the California Department of Education.
The state funds allowed San Juan Unified to add one half-day preschool class this year. And the money let Elk Grove Unified, the region’s largest district, add a class for 3-year-olds and another class for 4-year-olds to its 42 preschool classes. Twin Rivers Unified added 64 seats to existing classes.
Starting next year, even more state funding will give larger numbers of young children a chance at preschool educations. The state budget included $100 million to add nearly 8,900 full-day slots over four years. Funds for the first 2,600 students will be available in March.
Some districts also have been able to add Head Start preschool classes, which are funded by the federal government. The Head Start budget shot up by $1.5 billion in 2016, primarily to expand the number of full-day, full-school-year preschool classes.
Despite the influx of funding, some districts are struggling to find space for more preschool classes. Folsom Cordova Unified did not apply for additional state funds because the district lacks space at its schools to add preschool classes, district spokesman Daniel Thigpen said.
District officials at both Elk Grove Unified and San Juan Unified said they would have applied for additional funding for preschool if they had more space.
“There is definitely a space issue,” said Amy Slavensky, director of elementary education at San Juan. “The school districts are implementing class-size reduction, and we are competing against each other for space.”
Natomas Unified had to shuffle kindergarten classes around to make space for the two preschool classes added at Natomas Park and H. Allen Hight elementary schools
“As we look at further expansion, facilities and funding are the two biggest barriers,” said Heather Garcia, an associate superintendent at Natomas Unified. She said preschool and kindergarten classrooms have specific requirements, such as sinks and restrooms in or near the classrooms.
Shannon Ortiz is happy that her son, Landon, who just turned 4, was able to get a spot in one of the new preschool classes at Natomas Park.
“It was very important for him to start going to school, being around other kids on a regular basis,” she said. “(Before he went to kindergarten) I wanted him to be able to socialize and learn how to act with other children. I wanted him to be able to listen to instruction with his teachers and to be respectful.”
She says Landon, who attends Potter’s class for three hours each weekday, has learned the months of the year and days of the week, and is writing letters and practicing writing his name.
“He’s learned so much in the past two months that it just blows me away,” she said.
If Ortiz were not able to get Landon into the public preschool program, which is limited to the children of lower-income families, she would have had to put him in a private preschool. The family would have only been able to pay for three or four days of private preschool a week, and it would have been a hardship, she said.
Morgan said the influx of funds for preschool doesn’t make up for the billion dollars cut from the state program during the recession. She said only 70 percent of the children who are eligible for the state program are being served by the preschool programs.
“We have great need,” Slavensky said. “There are so many more children out there we could serve if we had additional dollars.”