Free preschool starts Sept. 2 in Sacramento City schools, and hundreds of vacancies remain

Despite dropping fees for the first time in two years, the Sacramento City Unified School District still has about 650 openings for its free state preschool and Head Start programs for low-income families.

California previously required that most families pay fees for half-day state-funded preschool, which serves children ages 3 and 4. Sacramento City Unified’s program operates for three hours each weekday at 41 school sites from September to June.

This year, the fee is history. So far, more than half of the district’s 1,553 slots are filled, said Wanda Roundtree, child development director for the district.

The fees were a hardship on many families, she said. They ranged from $1 to $8.88 per family per day, based on a sliding scale tied to family income.

“Preschool went underground,” Roundtree said.

Child care and education advocates pushed for the repeal this year, saying that fees had deterred families from using state-funded preschool and caused paperwork headaches for care providers. State leaders eliminated the fee in their 2014-15 budget.

Kim Johnson, policy director for the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, said it takes time to bring parents back into the fold if they’ve left because of cost.

“I think it’s really hard when these big program changes occur,” Johnson said. She said the restored funds will enable another 3,800 children to sign up for the program statewide – pushing the total to more than 148,000.

Roundtree said preschool is valuable because it helps young children learn to socialize, develop emotional maturity and be prepared for kindergarten. It offers an early emphasis on learning letters and numbers, drawing and recognizing symbols.

“It’s a pipeline for formal schooling the beginning of a learning continuum,” she said. The drawing, she said, “represents early stages of writing.”

“Our children engage in a lot of early journal writing,” Roundtree said. “They draw and they begin to write sample letters. Children tell stories about what they’ve done and draw pictures corresponding to those stories.”

The part-day state preschool program runs Monday through Friday. But for eligible families, the district blends that with the free 3.5-hour federal Head Start program, more than doubling the time preschoolers spend in class.

Roundtree said to enter the programs, children must be 3 years old by Sept. 1 and family incomes must fall below certain thresholds. A family of three earning no more $3,518 a month will receive priority for the state preschool, for example. If slots remain open after eligible families enroll, that monthly income limit climbs to $4,046.

Eligibility guidelines for the Head Start portion of the blended program are more stringent. Income for a family of three cannot exceed $1,649 to qualify. If there is no waiting list, the same size family can earn up to $2,144.

To bolster enrollment, the district already has turned to Twitter and Facebook, sent mailers and postcards and are posting community liaisons at area grocery stores to circulate fliers.

For a list of preschool sites, detailed income guidelines and an application, visit the website at