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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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As an education reporter and a parent, my personal and professional worlds collide.

My daughter was born five weeks early, which is about the last thing she hurried to do. She hasn’t rushed to hit the milestones that tell doctors and parents whether kids are developing on a typical timeline.

No, I don’t take the typical timeline as gospel. But I’m betting it’s a lot easier not to worry when your kid is on track.

To be clear, my daughter’s a late-talker. She’s not too far behind the curve, and we’re thankful she doesn’t have a severe disability. But spend your days writing about achievement gaps and dropout rates, then tell me you won’t occasionally jump to conclusions.

I was never a star pupil. I’ve never taken a serious IQ test, but if I did, I wager I’d score about average. Language, though, has always come easily. I can string words together, and I like to do it.

So it’s with particular fascination and frustration that I’ve watched my daughter struggle with speech. Fascination because it’s a marvel to watch another human start to attach words and meaning. Frustration because, for all my fancy words, I don’t know how to help her.

My wife and I play language games with her. We read to her like people say you should. But, I’ll be honest with you, most of the time it seems like she’s barely paying attention.

I question my parenting. Like whether I’m reading often enough to her, or sending her to a good enough preschool. It feels sort of tacky to base preschool decisions on costs, but the reality is, preschool is expensive.

My wife and I pay $850 a month to send her to school full time five days a week. That’s on the cheaper end. Other preschools range from $1,100 to $1,700.

Her preschool is fine. She smiles when I drop her off, and staff seems to treat her well. But I wonder how the program supports her cognitive development. On the classroom bulletin board, teachers post the week’s curriculum. This week, one objective was to jump over an object. Granted, my daughter is only 2, so jumping over an object actually would be challenging for her. Still, it seems kind of dumb.

So that’s had me thinking about looking for a more structured environment. But like many parents, I didn’t know where to start, or even what to look for in a preschool. I knew San Diego Unified has been pushing its preschools recently, but I didn’t know if that option was available for my daughter.

Question:How early can a child start ‘public school’? Kindergarten? Or even earlier? Also what is being taught to these kids? Is there research to prove the effectiveness of what is being taught?” – Mike Z., interested reader

Most kids will walk into their first San Diego Unified classroom when they’re 5 or 6, as kindergarteners. There’s also transitional kindergarten, which is offered to kids who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. T-K, as it’s often called, is an extra, preparatory year of school for students who’d otherwise just miss the kindergarten cut-off age.

If they qualify, kids can actually start public school as early as 2. Qualify, in this case, essentially comes down to how much money you bring in every month.

A family of one or two can’t make more than $3,283, monthly. A family of three can’t make more than $3,518. The cap goes up incrementally with family size, until you get to a family of eight, which can’t make more than $5,394. In short, you have to qualify as poor.

So there ends my short-lived journey into San Diego Unified’s preschool enrollment process. We make above the income ceiling, so we’re not eligible.

Because my daughter receives services for speech therapy, we hoped we’d qualify for one of the district’s Child Development Centers, which serves kids with special needs, as young as 2. No dice. Your child has to have special needs and you have to qualify as poor.

There are basically two types of preschool. There’s so-called state preschool, which is funded by the state but run by the district. Those serve 3- and 4-year-olds. And there are Child Development Centers, which serve 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds who need extra help, like those with a disability. Kids from Head Start, a federally funded early childhood education program, are sprinkled into Child Development Center classes. Chalk up other differences to funding sources.

Not that I care much, as a parent, about where program revenue comes from. I just want my daughter to get the best education possible, and I’d be willing to pay what I can. But the district doesn’t have a “for fee” model, or one that goes by a sliding scale.

So be it. Preschool is reserved for low-income families, and perhaps for good reason. A boatload of research shows the long-term benefits of high-quality preschools, especially for poor kids. Other research findings dismiss the benefits of Head Start, but remember: Preschools aren’t created equal. And most educators agree that high-quality preschools are a great way to close the achievement gap – by not letting it open in the first place.

Here’s the rub. Despite the value of those preschool seats, the district can’t fill up the ones they have. Between its state preschool and Child Development Centers, the district has about 4,000 slots. In a recent presentation, a district official said about 800 of those spots go unfilled.

The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted a few people taking guesses as to why this might be the case: Latino families who qualify might prefer to keep young ones at home; low-income families move around a lot, and it’s tough to commit to a school when you don’t know where you’ll live.

But district spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer said the biggest barrier is the onerous paperwork requirements for parents to show they’re eligible.

Think about it. Providing immunization records, proof of address, birth certificates, spending hours on paperwork – for most middle-class Americans this would qualify as annoying red tape. But for low-income families who might not have a car, health insurance, who don’t speak English – these can be impenetrable barriers.

So the district and teachers union are teaming up to canvass neighborhoods, asking families if they have kids they want to put in preschool. The district has also devised a postcard campaign where they search Postal Service routes and income levels to target perspective preschoolers.

Motivating the district is the desire to educate kids, yes. But also, San Diego Unified needs preschool revenue to help it make budget for next year. And for the district, every seat that goes unfilled is essentially money left on the table.

Meanwhile, parents like me will have to look outside the district until our kids go tumbling into kindergarten classrooms. To her future teachers, you’ve been warned. She’s a feisty one.

Next week, I’ll look at the second part to this question: What are they teaching these rascals, and how do we know it’s effective?

Ed Read of the Week

The Problem We All Live With (This American Life)

We hear it all the time in education: “Turnaround.” A troubled school is going to turn around its test scores; a district is going to turn around its reputation.

In 10 years covering education, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones heard it many times. She realized districts everywhere had virtually the same lingo, and sought the same solutions. High schools would offer courses for college credit, or a district would build a new magnet school, one competitive enough to attract white and middle class families.

The problem? It almost never works. The achievement gap between black and white students closes only marginally, if at all. When it doesn’t work, districts give up, and look for another quick fix.

Yet, she found, there’s one thing that is effective. It’s a relatively straightforward solution, yet one that nobody is willing to talk about: integration.

Between the early ’70s and late-’80s – the height of a concerted push toward integration – more black and brown children from low-income neighborhoods got on buses and rode to schools in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods. Within that short amount of time, the achievement gap, nationally, was cut by half.

Nothing magical happens when you put black and Latino students into majority-white schools. Students of color don’t pick up knowledge through osmosis. What happens is that when you take kids from low-income schools and put them into schools in whiter, more affluent areas, black and Latino students suddenly have access to a more robust curriculum and more experienced teachers.

Hannah-Jones wonders if – had real integration programs continued – the national achievement gap could have been virtually eliminated by now. So what happened? Real integration proved difficult, and districts gave up, she says.

San Diego Unified isn’t immune to the issue. Compare La Jolla High with one of the high schools parents are most avoiding, Crawford High. Last year La Jolla was 53 percent white, 30 percent Latino and 2 percent black. Crawford, conversely, was 42 percent Latino, 26 percent black and 2 percent white.

Those numbers wouldn’t mean much if students were coming out of those high schools equally ready for college, or if parents were equally eager to send their kids to school. But that’s not happening.

The solutions San Diego Unified looks for are also similar to the ones tried elsewhere. Lincoln High School was rebuilt in 2007 for $129 million. When that didn’t work, it started offering classes for college credit. San Diego Unified is thinking of tearing down Memorial Prep, the district school parents most avoid, and rebuilding it.

In short, when other solutions have failed, the district resorts to: building more shit.

And yet, the district pushes ahead with its plan to keep more kids in their neighborhood schools. But because neighborhoods are already segregated by race and socioeconomics, you have to wonder whether the neighborhood schools initiative is as progressive an idea as it sounds.

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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