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free preschool
Lillian Agard looks on as her 3-year-old granddaughter Siena paints and colors at the art table during free choice at the Y’s pop-up preschool in the Hillview library in East San Jose. Credit: Kathryn Baron

SAN JOSE, Calif. — At 11 on a cool Friday morning in spring, Cindy Rivera opened the door to her preschool room and greeted 13 children by name as they rushed in, pulling a parent or grandparent by the hand behind them.

“Good morning, Siena,” said Rivera in a lilting voice. “Are you going to sign your name in all by yourself?”

As the children sat cross-legged on a large round rug decorated with illustrations of kids from around the world wearing traditional clothing, Rivera led them in their good morning song, sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques.” Then they were off to one of 13 learning and play centers around the room, including art, reading, science, musical instruments, blocks, math, and Play-Doh.

Just an hour earlier, this room in the Hillview neighborhood library of East San Jose, California, was completely empty. In a variation on the theme of pop-up restaurants, boutiques and entertainment, it is one of six pop-up preschools in Silicon Valley. Each was started between 2011 and 2015 as part of a national pilot launched by the YMCA to provide free early childhood education programs for young children in low-income families.

“A lot of these families here can’t afford preschool and so being able to bring it to them in their community, in their neighborhood, where they would never be exposed to something like this is so valuable for them,” Rivera said.

Related: Seven things parents and teachers should know about preschool math

Of the more than 200,000 children ages 5 and younger in Silicon Valley, some 50,000 live in low-income families, according to a 2016 analysis by the Urban Institute. Nationally, the figure is close to 11 million children age 6 and younger classified as “low-income.” That’s an income of less than twice the federal poverty level, which, in 2015, was $24,036 for a family of four with two children under 18.

2.5 million — the number of 4-year-olds in the United States who don’t have access to affordable, high quality childcare or preschool.

These low-income children are overwhelmingly more likely to have immigrant parents and are significantly less likely to attend preschool than their higher income peers. In a study of the nation’s 4 million 4-year-olds, the U.S. Department of Education found that fully 60 percent — 2.5 million — lack access to publicly funded preschool. Without quality preschool, children from low-income families are about one year behind their higher income classmates academically and developmentally when they start kindergarten, according to the study.

Pop-up preschool was an almost instant hit at the Hillview library. On the day it first opened, three families had enrolled. By the next week the program was full with 15 children and their parents or grandparents. Now there’s a waiting list.

“This is what I was looking for,” said Lillian Agard, grandmother to 3-year-old Siena. Preschool costs a lot, she said. “You can find it, but you have to pay for it.”

Program costs vary from site to site but average about $625 per child for 38 weeks, including snacks, according to Theresa Sessions, the regional manager for the National Y’s achievement gap initiatives. Each local branch of the Y raises its own funds, typically through an annual campaign, grants from private foundations, the United Way and local government, and partnerships with schools and community organizations

Related: Why Oklahoma’s public preschools are some of the best in the country

Agard, who takes care of Siena while her parents work, heard about the pop-up program during one of their regular visits to the library for story time. They like the preschool so much that they enrolled in two other pop-up preschools and now go five days a week.

“A lot of these families here can’t afford preschool… something like this is so valuable for them.”

“I’m always looking into things that are educational and that will help her,” says Agard.

Even though Siena is shy in front of a stranger, hiding by her grandmother’s feet under the table and poking up with a smile every few minutes, Agard says she’s become much more social since they started coming here. She’s also learning to count, knows the alphabet, is spending more time in the science area, and loves books.

“While I’m reading a story, I’ll ask her: ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ She’s following. She knows exactly what’s going on,” says Agard.

At home, Agard has fun ways of reinforcing what Siena is learning in preschool.

“If she wants cookies, I say, ‘Okay, let’s count how many cookies you’re going to get.’ Because she can go farther than how many cookies I want her to have, I say, ‘Okay, I think that is enough cookies,’” jokes Agard.

The YMCA runs 104 pop-up preschools in 27 states, serving nearly 1,900 children plus a parent or grandparent of each child, according to a Y spokesperson. The schools don’t pop up randomly. Each program is in the same place, with the same teacher, and on the same two days during its entire 38-week run. The continuity extends to the participants. Families must register in advance because, like any school, there is a specific curriculum with lesson plans that build on one another.

Local Y’s try to select sites for the pop-up programs that are centrally located in neighborhoods, so they’re within walking distance for families. Libraries are popular locations, but so are community centers, schools, churches, public housing, local YMCA centers, and museums. One program in Southern California is held in a park; in Hawaii, there are some pop-ups on the beach.

“It’s actually quite cool,” said Deborah Stipek, an education professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and longtime early childhood education researcher. “I kind of like the idea that you can turn a place into a space that’s comfortable for parents and kids that easily,”

Without an affordable and accessible place to go, says Stipek, too many low-income children wind up in home daycare with relatives or neighbors who have no training and just park the kids in front of a television.

Related: When preschoolers spend every class outdoors

The program accepts infants to age 5, the period in which children experience the fastest and most extensive brain development, according to scientists. But environment is crucial to this growth. Long-term stress due to poverty, neglect, physical or emotional abuse, and unstable family relationships can alter or slow the process, according a 2014 report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

104 — the number of free pop-up preschools across the country, serving nearly 2,000 children and their families, run by the YMCA .

A key goal of the program is to provide more opportunities for low-income children — predominantly black and Hispanic — to attend high-quality preschools so they’ll be more prepared socially and academically when they start kindergarten. The pop-ups are also designed to give parents and grandparents strategies and ideas to make learning fun for their children and grandchildren.

“Even though they’re playing with Play-Doh, we can talk about colors,” explains Rivera; playing with blocks is an opportunity to talk about numbers. “We encourage the caregivers to ask a lot of questions. How many blocks does it take to build that?”

Each day there’s an art project and book about a different letter. At the recent Friday session, it was the letter U. The art table had coloring-book pictures of umbrellas for the children to decorate.  During circle time, Rivera read a story based on words with the U sound and then reviewed the words.

“Let’s say our U words. Ready? Ugly duckling. Umbrella. Umpire. Uncle,” said Rivera as the children repeated after her.

Carl Estonilo said he’s learning things in this class with his 5-year-old grandson Clausen that he never learned growing up in the Philippines. Here, the teacher talks to the children about what to do in case of an emergency or if they’ve been abused. “They talk about all that,” said Estonilo, “it’s a good thing.”

Back when Estonilo was in school, he said students sat quietly, waiting for the teacher to call on them. He enjoys the active learning in this class and enthusiastically participates in all of it, including the hand motions when the group sings “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

Best of all, he said, he’s learning from his grandson. When they’re reading, Clausen asks him as many questions as he asks Clausen.

“That’s the thing that really make me happy, because your grandkid challenges you, too,” said Estonilo. “Everything that he learned here he’s applying at the home. If you say something the wrong way, he corrects you right away. ‘That’s not the right way; Miss Cindy say this way, not that way,’” he added with a laugh.

“While I’m reading a story, I’ll ask her: ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ She’s following. She knows exactly what’s going on.”

Even snack time had its lessons. All the tables were pushed together and the children ate family style so they learned table manners, such as how to ask someone to pass the food, which is also provided by the Y.

Estonilo and the other parents and grandparents here like the connections they’re making with each other. They exchange ideas, share information, and, as Eloisa Arroyo and her 3-year-old daughter Luna have discovered, develop friendships.

“Right now, I’m trying to get her into dance and one of the parents was sharing with me that she’s going to do the same thing, so we were like, ‘Oh, maybe we can do it together and take our daughters to dance,’” said Arroyo, looking on as Rivera led the children in outdoor games.

This is the time that parents have to chat and get to know each other. Sociologists give this simple interaction a big name, “intergenerational closure,” according to Harvard University sociologist Mario Small, who studies the impact of childcare programs on caregivers.

Over the course of programs such as this, said Small, parents and grandparents often develop strong support networks that are “important for a bunch of things, like your mental health, [and] your ability to deal with emergency situations that happen when you’re at the bottom of the income distribution.”

Parents and grandparents who attend the preschools regularly report that their children and grandchildren know more numbers and words as a result of the program, are confident and interested in learning, and show greater perseverance when learning something difficult, according to an evaluation by the national YMCA.

Attendance, however, could be better. The evaluation recommends actions the local YMCAs can take to address this, such as calling and emailing participants, sharing tips from high-attendance programs, and reducing the number of days missed due to colds and other common illnesses by including information about health and wellness for caregivers.

At the end of the day, the most important opinions are those of the kids themselves, and, according to their parents and grandparents, the children at the Hillview library give the program rave reviews.

Arroyo says Luna is so excited on preschool days that she’s up, dressed, has eaten breakfast, brushed her teeth and hair, and is at the door and ready to go by 10:30.

Clausen starts the night before. “At nighttime he’s already preparing his clothes and everything,” said Estonilo, “Reminding me: ‘¡Ay papa,’ because he calls me papa, instead of grandpa, ‘not too much TV, remember Thursday and Friday I have school.’”

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

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