Expanding Access to High Quality Preschool in Santa Cruz County

by Michael Watkins, Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools

For the past thirteen years, a number of local organizations, in conjunction with United Way of Santa Cruz County, have sponsored the Community Assessment Project, a collaborative effort targeted at measuring and improving the quality of life in Santa Cruz County. One of the goals highlighted in the 2007 Educational Issues section of the report was “by the year 2010, more schools will have a pre-kindergarten program available for all children”. The Santa Cruz County Office of Education, First 5 and the Childhood Advisory Council have accepted this challenge and with the help of a David and Lucille Packard Foundation grant will spend the next year planning and conducting research in an effort to ensure that three-year-olds and four-year-olds have access to a high quality preschool regardless of their families’ economic status.

We now know that an investment in preschools not only gives students a foundation for future academic success but is also an investment in the future economic growth of a community. We also know that if children have a quality preschool experience in the years before kindergarten, they are more likely to have success throughout their school years. Early childhood studies demonstrate how rapidly the brain develops in very young children and how important a stimulating learning environment is to that development. Yet for many families, the cost of preschool is prohibitive. The children in this county who lack access to these opportunities are low income families and English learners. Longitudinal studies of economically challenged families and minority groups suggest that early intervention is more effective and less costly than later remediation.

There are an estimated 6,000 three-to-four-year-old children in Santa Cruz County. This project lays the groundwork for addressing solutions to provide a high-quality, voluntary preschool for children in their last two years before kindergarten. There are approximately 3,000 children who are not attending preschool. If we as a county are serious about closing the achievement gap and reducing the dropout rate of children living below the poverty line and children learning English as a second language, we need to start our efforts early. In the last few years in Santa Cruz County, we have seen an increase in new preschools located on school campuses and in the community, but we still have far too many un-served young children.

Efforts such as the one that we are about to embark upon are taking place all across this nation. In fact, some states are already offering voluntary prekindergarten education to four-year-olds; however, with the California state budget crisis putting many social and educational programs in peril, it is now incumbent upon us as a local community to come together to address these issues.

If you are interested in participating in this planning process, please contact Carole Mulford at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, Child Development Department, (831) 466-5821. For more information, see the Childhood Advisory Council web site.

This op-ed was published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on September 9, 2008.