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California early education
A California preschool teacher reads to students. The state has the largest population of children 4 and under in the nation. Credit: Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

California’s early education system is still not fully funded more than a decade after the Great Recession even though the need is vast. The state has the largest population of children 4 and under in the nation. More than 20 percent are English learners and nearly 24 percent of children 6 and under live in poverty. Early childhood education could be especially beneficial for poor kids but California does not offer universal pre-K. During the 2016-17 school year, the state served just 11 percent of 3-year-olds and 37 percent of 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K.

But several communities in California have tried to buck the trend by developing innovative preschools, especially for children who are dual-language learners, live in low-income home or have faced adversity. A recently released report by New America highlights the work in these three communities, San Jose, Oakland, and Fresno, and explains how other areas can adopt these strategies.

1. Helping parents: In San Jose, the Educare California child care center has a family resource center where adults can attend parent education workshops, bring children for developmental screenings and receive referrals for medical care. In Oakland, the district is working with the Lotus Bloom family resource center to host playgroups where children can play while adults attend workshops, receive support the center’s staff members and learn about social services. In Fresno, the Helm Home Play & Learn Center supports families by providing a book and toy library, workshops for parents and caregivers and playgroups. The center is located in a public housing building and tries to educate adults about teaching children at an early age.

2. Teaching the teachers: Research shows that the training that early childhood teachers receive in preparation programs is often inadequate, and teacher qualification levels vary. The Fresno Language Project, a partnership between the local school district and educational organization is helping teachers work with children learning English. The collaborative hosts professional development sessions on Saturday mornings for teachers, administrators, and home care providers to boost teachers’ abilities to support home language, choose books and promote oral language development. The Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose has launched sessions that help teachers learn to teach social-emotional skills followed up by coaching and opportunities to meet with other teachers. In Oakland, a pilot program teaches preschool teachers about classroom practices to support children with traumatic experiences.

3. Improving data collection to determine need: San Jose, Fresno, and Oakland have all adopted the Early Development Instrument, which is completed by kindergarten teachers and measures child health, development, and kindergarten readiness. Juan Cruz, the superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District, said in the report the results of a recent survey of need in his district were “eye-opening” and helped the district determine where to provide resources. Some districts have also surveyed parents and are training teachers to collect data and use this in their classrooms.

Although these districts have seen some success in rolling out these new initiatives, the authors of the New America report caution that several key ingredients are needed for other districts to replicate these strategies. Administrators are needed to support and coordinate programs, and coaches must be available to help teachers as they change or adapt their teaching. Partners are often needed to work with school districts and funding is needed to pay for substitutes for teachers to attend trainings during the week, as well as for classroom supplies and venues.

This story about preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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