As part of Superintendent Cindy Marten’s mission to close the achievement gap by the end of first grade, she wants to double down on programs for preschool-aged children.

It’s a gutsy goal, swaddled in good will, but the proposal hinges on two important beliefs: that a gap exists by first grade, and that programs like preschool could help close it — two notions critics don’t accept at face value.

While Marten hasn’t broadcast her ultimate goal — she wants every child in San Diego to have access to free preschool — she hasn’t made it a secret, either.

In many ways, the timing is right to make such a shift. From Washington D.C.  to New York City, the drumbeats for pre-K are growing louder.

But if Marten wants to persuade San Diego that expanded preschool is a sound investment, she must first make the case that it’s even feasible — no easy feat in a district facing a $75 million deficit.

Marten and the school board haven’t yet hung a price tag on their proposed strategies for closing the achievement gap — expanded early-childhood education programs, extra help for long-term English learners and interventions to keep high school students on track to graduate.

The district has planned, however, to make up for some of its budget shortfall by cutting central office positions and selling off more of its properties.

Marten doesn’t have a lot of money to play with at the moment, but said that she wants to put a “stake in the ground” by incentivizing preschool and allocating more money to schools that plan to expand.

Momentum will be generated, Marten recently said, when San Diego Unified sees itself as a preschool-to-12th grade district, instead of a kindergarten-to-12th-grade district.

“Pre-school has always been seen as a stepchild in the district,” Marten told VOSD. “We can change that, but we need to invest. We don’t need to spend a billion dollars; we just need to be smarter about the way we spend.”

An Old Fight

Preschool as a means to equity isn’t a new idea. In fact, former President Lyndon Johnson trumpeted early childhood education as a way to short-circuit the road to poverty. But if preschool is nothing new — neither is the debate over its effectiveness.

Critics have questioned the value of Head Start — a federal program for children from low-income families — often citing a study by the Department of Health and Human Services that showed the program’s benefits largely dissipated by the third grade.

Head Start defenders contend holes exist in the study and say Head Start’s debatable benefits don’t invalidate the value of high-quality preschools.

Tad Parzen, executive director of the City Heights Partnership for Children, said the criticism cloaks a deeper issue: “They’re really not criticizing Head Start. They’re criticizing spending money on Head Start when what we do after that seems to not maintain the gains kids make early on.”

There isn’t much data specific to San Diego Unified that suggests a gap exists by first grade, but a recent study by Stanford professor Anne Fernald found that children from low-income families enter school with fewer language skills than their more privileged peers. A gap is noticeable by the time children are 18-months-old, the research showed.

Fernald said the number of words children hear, and variation of parents’ vocabulary, can impact language acquisition and reading comprehension.

In San Diego Unified, results from the 2013 California Standards Test showed that over 50 percent of black and Hispanic second graders, respectively, tested below proficient in Language Arts. Compare that with 23 percent of white students.

A ‘Byzantine’ System

The biggest conflict for pre-K expansion might be more practical than philosophical.

Roughly 3,600 children attend early education programs in San Diego Unified. The estimated funding for this school year ­— $25.2 million — will come from various pots of money, such as the California Department of Education and Head Start.

Pre-K funding is structured for low-income families and is based on strict income requirements. Parents hoping to enroll their children have a lot of proving to do, and have to navigate a system Parzen calls “byzantine.”

Robin McCulloch, director of the district’s Early Childhood Education program, said “the (pre-K) paperwork is heinous. That’s not by our design; it’s just the way it is.”

This could mean that parents, many of whom might not have much education or experience navigating bureaucratic red tape, have to track down paperwork like proof of income or children’s immunization records — sometimes while working three jobs, McCulloch said.

Alleviating the problem might mean including more staff members to help parents sort through the rigmarole of registration, or it could be as straightforward as streamlining the application process.

The result of the system that’s in place is empty preschool seats – even though there’s a list of interested parents who want to enroll their children.

McCulloch said pre-K is as much of an education for the parents as it is for the students.

“(Some) parents, not because of choice or moral flaw, didn’t go to school beyond the second grade. They want to help their children, but they just don’t know how” she said. “We are filling those gaps.”

Community Fabric

Patricia Gándara, a research professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, doesn’t doubt that disparities exist for young children, or that early childhood education can offer benefits.

She does, however, question whether early childhood education can help close the gap.

“These achievement gaps that show up very early are obviously not the result of schooling,” Gándara said. “They’re the results of other factors starting at birth.”

If you want to close the gaps in education, which parallel parents’ socioeconomic status, “You need to change the conditions in which young children are being raised,” she said.

This might mean recruiting advocates who could help carry information to parents who fall through the cracks.

Parzen agrees, and sees a need for services at the grassroots, neighborhood level. But, he said, the amount of help a family with preschool aged children can get comes down to the degree to which the school system makes it a priority — and whether the community is satisfied with the status quo.

“I don’t know who could look you in the eye and deny that some kids show up more ready for kindergarten than others,” Parzen said. “It’s delusional, destructive and divisive to turn a blind eye to it. And it undermines the fabric of our community.”

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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