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Preschool teacher California
Maria Lemus, far left, paints the alphabet with siblings Adrian and Kimberly Lorencillo and their grandmother before most of the other students arrive. Credit: Andra Cernavskis

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s about 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in June and 3- and 4-year-olds are starting to flood into Maria Alicia Lemus’ classroom in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. They scream “teacher, teacher, teacher” as they eagerly ring the outside bell. Lemus, the classroom’s lead teacher, sighs and then smiles as she opens the gate to let in her students.

“What are we doing today?” shouted Adrian Lorencillo, age 5, one of the oldest and most energetic boys in the class. Before rushing to put his backpack and soccer equipment away in the cubbies, he proudly showed Lemus his new cleats. Meanwhile, his sister Kimberly Lorencillo, 4, ran to a low table set with construction paper and white paint for the morning activity.

“K is for Kimberly,” Lemus tells the first few students to arrive in her soft voice, as she paints a large “K” on a piece of bright construction paper.

The Head Start preschool classroom Lemus leads is a bright space with high ceilings, and multiple play areas. Tuition is free. Head Start students qualify to attend the program when their family’s annual earnings fall below the 2015 federal poverty guidelines, which is $24,250 for a family of four.

But in this Head Start classroom, as in many other preschools across the nation, teachers face financial problems similar to those faced by the families of the children they serve. The average Head Start salary for lead teachers with bachelor’s degrees was between $30,623 and $34,794 in 2013. Despite early childhood education’s high position on President Obama’s national agenda and studies that have proven its benefits, few districts pay the price for high-quality teachers.

In California, the mean hourly wage for child care workers in 2013 was $11.86, only 60 cents higher than the $11.26 they earned in 1997 (in 2013 dollars), according to a report by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. For preschool teachers, the average wage in California was slightly higher at $16.46 an hour, up from $14.02 in 1997 (in 2013 dollars). While these wages go further in rural towns and less expensive cities, they do very little for women and families struggling to survive in places like San Francisco, where the cost of living is consistently increasing.

Lemus, who holds a B.A. in early childhood education from San Francisco State University, loves her job but struggles financially. She said that she makes $31,000 a year, after paying taxes, for her work at the preschool in the Bayview area. She pays $685 a month for rent and utilities for a three-bedroom apartment she shares with five other people. She also helps support her mother, who is still unable to work after a long battle with cancer. Lemus said her salary is barely enough to cover her expenses so she has a second job delivering food. Starting this fall, her finances and schedule will be even tighter: she plans to begin a master’s degree in early childhood education while continuing to work at the preschool.

“People don’t see the value in early education,” said Lemus, 24, of the wages she earns. “The hard work we do every day.”

Lemus, who is single, does not technically meet the federal government’s poverty guidelines of $11,770 for a one-person household, but like many early childhood teachers, she is just a broken-down car or steep medical bill away from being in the same boat as the children she teaches.

“The programs serving the most vulnerable children are the programs that you need the most stable and caring staffing, but the women who are in those programs are the most likely to have unstable lives,” said Gretchen Ames, who teaches a course on public policies relating to children at San Francisco State University.

Ames, who is now pursing a doctorate in educational leadership at Mills College in Oakland, California, worked in a center like Lemus’ last year. Every teacher in her classroom had at least one other job, if not several. Ames believes the teachers’ stress exacerbated the stress in the lives of their students. One woman worked a night shift as a nurse’s assistant in addition to her work as a teacher. Ames said there were days when the woman would come to work after not having slept for 24 hours.

“She would come to work so tired and she would try to read a book to a child and just fall asleep,” Ames said. “Her heart is in the right place, but she couldn’t stay awake.”

The problem of low pay for early education workers is particularly urgent in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country. The median rent in San Francisco reached $4,225 a month in June, according to the popular realty website Zillow. The Atlantic’s CityLab website estimated in 2014 that residents need a salary of $78,000 to live here.

Related: Silicon Valley’s skyrocketing housing costs shut out teachers

Preschool teacher California
Maria Lemus files paperwork while students nap. Credit: Andra Cernavskis

For Lemus, surviving in the city means constant work. Most days, she gets up at 6 a.m. in order to arrive at work by 7:20 a.m. Despite her lack of sleep, she is energetic. She often plays Latin dance music in the classroom or has the kids dance along to old favorites like the Baha Men’s 2000 hit “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

On this Thursday, she cheerfully greets her students throughout the early morning as they are dropped off—some by grandparents, some by mothers, some by older siblings. By 9 a.m. she has already cleaned and prepared the classroom for the day, cleared all the leaves and debris off the playground with a large leaf blower, carried out the first day’s activity, played with the children outside, and consoled one crying boy.

“It’s relaxing right now,” Lemus says. “There are only 15 students because it’s the summer. Imagine when there are 24 [during the school year]. They need so much attention.”

Betsabe Bamaca, age 4, a small girl with two long braids, is having a particularly rough morning. When a playground game doesn’t go her way, she stands and screams until a teacher approaches her. Then, she runs away. After two teachers fail to calm her down, Lemus is called in to help.

Lemus takes the girl aside and quietly talks to her about what was wrong.

Once she has helped Betsabe settle down, Lemus switches gears and leads all the students into the classroom, where she reviews the days of the week with the class and shows them simple addition problems.

“If you have two pineapples and Lamarius has four, how many pineapples do you have?” she asks one student. Then, turning to the other students, she asks similar addition problems with different fruit. As she speaks, she draws each piece of produce on the board for easy counting.

Her classroom is bilingual and Lemus switches easily between English and Spanish throughout the day. Although she was born in Los Angeles, Lemus spent most of her childhood in El Salvador with her aunt while her mother tried to set up a life here. When Lemus was 12, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Lemus, the only daughter with U.S. citizenship, returned to California to help.

Related: In Central California, Head Start finds new ways to reach children of migrant workers

All but one of the four teachers in Lemus’ classroom immigrated to the U.S. from Latin America. And every one of them is struggling to pay bills. One woman lives with her daughter in order to afford San Francisco’s high rent; another is in low-income housing. A third teacher was just evicted from her home in San Mateo, 30 minutes to the south, and is now living with her daughter in the Bayview neighborhood while she tries to find new housing. She often asks Lemus to extend her break so she can go apartment hunting during the day.

“The programs serving the most vulnerable children are the programs that you need the most stable and caring staffing, but the women who are in those programs are the most likely to have unstable lives.”

These teachers are not alone. According to the University of California, Berkeley report, almost half of the families of child care workers need financial help from government assistance programs.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley, said that when she began working in the field over 30 years ago, California paid early educators well.

After World War II, California was the only state to maintain the child care centers it had opened during the war to accommodate the young mothers who replaced men in the workforce. When former President Harry Truman closed most of the centers in the country, California’s women fought back, winning the right to keep the centers open. According to Whitebook, who has written about the history of early childhood education, these centers were of high quality and developmentally appropriate for the children they served.

But, over time, standards and funding eroded, Whitebook said. This trend continued in the early 1970s when Whitebook entered the early childhood education field.

“[Child] care was never defined as a necessary service,” she said.

And that, she explained, is one of the reasons why things have not improved for the nearly 56,000 preschool teachers in the state.

Over the years, there have been a few efforts to help early childhood teachers. In 2000, San Francisco County responded to an exodus of teachers being lured away from the profession by the dot-com boom by establishing a program to supplement their wages. Newly named C-WAGES in 2012, the program helps public centers pay their staff based on the workers’ job title and education level so that earnings start to move closer to a living wage.

The city’s nearly $13.5 million initiative, only $500,000 of which comes from the state, provides a salary increase to early education workers like Lemus who work in centers in which at least 25 percent of the students come from low-income families, as defined by the local child care planning council in San Francisco (a family of four making less than $46,896 a year is considered low-income), according to Elise Crane, a senior policy analyst in San Francisco’s Office of Early Care and Education. These extra wages are provided to workers at 80 centers in the city, including all Head Start programs, as well some staff at family child care facilities.

Sara Hicks-Kilday, president of the San Francisco Child Care Providers’ Association, concedes that this makes the wage situation better in San Francisco than other cities in the state, even neighboring Oakland. But it’s not nearly enough for young workers, like Lemus, who want to live in the city, she said.

Related: New bill would significantly expand state preschool in California

While some argue that parents with means should pay more tuition in certain schools, Crane said center leaders have a difficult time raising wages because they’re limited by how much they can ask of even moderate-income families, who are themselves only able to pay so much for preschool in the face of San Francisco’s rising cost of living.

“People don’t see the value in early education — the hard work we do every day.”

“You can’t ask these low-income parents to share the costs, and the state isn’t willing to pay more to serve these students,” Crane said. “It comes down to a values thing.”

Back in Lemus’ classroom, it’s noon and each child is napping under a blanket on a small, blue cot with his or her name on it. Soothing lullabies play over a sound system. Lemus sits on the floor next to Betsabe, who has been having tantrums all morning. She strokes the child’s hair until she is in a deep sleep.

“Some of the kids go to bed late because they are up watching TV,” Lemus said. “They need this sleep.”

A few hours later, at 4 p.m., Lemus leaves the center for her second job. The children’s parents don’t usually pick them up before 5 p.m., but the school understands that Lemus needs to work two jobs. The three other teachers remain in the classroom until all the children have been sent home. By 6 p.m., Lemus is back at work, delivering food for a company called Sprig.

Sprig offers healthy meals delivered to customers’ front doors through the click of a button on an app. It’s part of the “on-demand” economy, operating much like the now famous ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. Workers like Lemus are drawn to these companies because they are able to make extra money in their off hours.

“The hardest part of my day is right now, knowing that I have to come here and keep going when I could be doing other things for myself,” Lemus said.

Most of Lemus’ deliveries are in neighborhoods that Lemus calls “the high end areas” like the Marina and Noe Valley, where homes sell for millions of dollars.

“The places I go to deliver this food, I’m like, ‘What do you do?’” Lemus said. ‘“How do you afford these apartments?’”

After about four hours of driving hot meals to expensive homes, Lemus usually gets home around 10:30 p.m.

“Sometimes I don’t know how I do it every day,” Lemus says as she drives through the San Francisco streets. “I think I do it because I care. I know I’m making an impact. A small one, but it’s something.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California schools.

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