Pondering Preschool

Nikki Orca calls out letters during alphabet bingo at the

Research reveals that Gilroy could greatly benefit from
universal preschool
Gilroy – It didn’t take long for the waiting list to emerge.

Thirteen years ago, Julie Kiefer began operating a preschool out of her home and quickly discovered there was a serious deficiency in Gilroy. The number of tots signing up for her home-spun, Christian program grew and grew and then the waiting list became a necessity.

The mother of three understands why there was, and still is, such a demand.

“We have an actual program,” said Kiefer of her Gilroy-based Creative Play Learning Center preschool. “I think the big daycare centers, in my opinion, they’re more of a daycare. Ours is definitely like going to school for the little children instead of, say, baby-sitting.”

Kiefer has firsthand experience. After her youngest child was born she decided to quit her job as a special education preschool teacher with the Santa Clara County Office of Education and stay home.

But when her son, who now attends Gilroy High School, reached preschool age, she wasn’t satisfied with the local selection.

“It was hard for me to find a good place to place him so that’s when I started researching and decided to start my own,” she said.

Kiefer converted her backyard, kitchen and family room into the school. Parents would walk into her house and say “wow,” she said.

Kiefer quickly heard from many parents that what they wanted was a preschool – not a huge, impersonal daycare center. Word got around about Creative Play Learning Center “and I had a list a mile long to get in.”

Six years ago, Kiefer moved her business into its present home on Fourth Street. There’s more room now but demand to get into her nondenominational, Christian school is still high, she said.

At Kiefer’s preschool, children attend for a maximum of three hours a day. The 2- and 3-year-olds come to school twice a week, while the pre-kindergartners spend three to five days a week at the school.

Besides the amount of time tots spend in preschool versus the self-explanatory daycare, there are major differences between the two, said Kiefer.

At Creative Play Learning Center, the children do a lot of hands-on activities, such as painting and building with blocks and Legos. They learn poetry and Spanish words and participate in “circle time” with schoolmates.

In preschool, they’re developing social and developmental skills but because it’s fun, “they don’t think it’s work,” Kiefer said.

Parents pay $165 a month for the two-day program, $240 a month for three days a week and $360 a month for the five-day program. A one-time $45 nonrefundable registration fee is added to the initial cost.

But what happens to the children whose parents’ can’t pony up the extra cash every month for a private preschool?

Many don’t have the chance to develop those invaluable skills until the first day of kindergarten, said Yolanda Garcia, director of the Institute for Advancing Excellence in Early Education, a Santa Clara County-based non-profit serving on behalf of First 5.

According to a study recently released by First 5 California, children who aren’t given the chance to receive early education are more likely to be retained, develop behavioral problems and/or land in special education.

Also, only one-third of children who enter kindergarten in schools with low Academic Performance Index scores possess the social and academic skills necessary to be a successful student, according to the study.

First 5 California spent the past year compiling data and numbers to convince the public that universal preschool is a necessity.

If the Preschool for All initiative, which was originally slated to appear on last year’s ballot, passes in June, all California 4-year-olds will be able to attend a state-funded preschool, regardless of income. Actor Rob Reiner, the driving force behind the initiative, withdrew the initiative in order to garner more support.

Last fall, he assembled a research committee comprised of number of other business, education and labor organizations, including First 5.

During the past year, counties and cities throughout California were placed under the magnifying glass and Gilroy was identified as one of the cities in Santa Clara County that could benefit from universal preschool, Garcia said.

Garcia said the non-profit collected data from a variety of social services, looked at the number of parents without high school degrees and the number of children identified as “at risk.”

In the end, their research revealed that Gilroy has “scarce resources for early childhood education” and a “lack of access to preschool-to-kindergarten transition assistance.

In Santa Clara County, of the 55,630 children between the ages of 3 and 5 not enrolled in kindergarten, 53 percent were enrolled in preschool, compared to an overall state percentage of 47 percent, according to the most recent statistics from the California Research Bureau.

Garcia wants to increase that number even though the county is faring better than the state.

Although Gilroy already has Head Start, a federally-funded pre-school for low-income families, the program only reaches a “small number” of families since it’s based on federal income guidelines, Garcia said.

The goal of the Preschool for All initiative is to serve an additional 1,000 children every year for the next five years, she said.

The initiative would be funded through a 1.7 percent income tax increase on the wealthiest 1 percent of Californians, beginning with married couples earning more than $800,000 annually and singles earning $400,000 a year.

Santa Clara County would spend an estimated $150 million if the measure passes, Garcia said. Another added, unmeasured cost would be the increase in teacher salaries. Because the state would want to align the preschool curriculum with elementary school, preschool teachers would be required to have a bachelor’s and teaching credential, said Garcia.

Some may balk at the upfront cost, but Garcia thinks Californians should focus on the ultimate savings to our pocketbooks and society. According to their research, universal preschool would mean result in a more productive workforce and fewer criminals.

Gilroy resident Cynthia Walker doesn’t buy it.

Walker, who homeschooled two of her children and still spends her time educating the youngest, thinks state-funded preschool would just be an extension of an already flawed system. Once parents begin sending their young ones to public preschools in Gilroy, their academic future will be even more hampered, she said.

“I don’t think that children belong in school at that age,” Walker said.

Also, cost is a major issue.

“Our state school system is already hugely strapped for cash and yet they want to start another year,” said Walker.

The Dispatch columnist thinks children are better off at home, that they’re too young to spend the day entrenched in academics. That’s why the push for all-day kindergarten and state-funded preschool will only hurt children, she said.

Reading aloud is the most important early education anyone can provide for a child, according to Walker. Between the ages of 3 to 5, children should be spending time doing “a lot of real-life experiences,” such as growing vegetables in the garden and cooking with mom, she said.

Walker said, these days, children aren’t given enough time to dream and play.

“You can’t underestimate the power of a sandbox,” she said.

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