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Janneth Rosales thought she had her child ready for the school year.
Leading up to opening day, Rosales had her son enrolled in preschool at a child development center near her home in Normal Heights – a San Diego Unified-run preschool.
If Rosales organized her day just right, she could attend college classes during the day, pick up her son from school and arrive in Solana Beach in time for her afternoon work shift. But days into the school year, Rosales says she received a call from the school district informing her the preschool her son attends is one of four scheduled to close within the month.
Three of the district’s 12 child development centers, preschools intended for parents who work or attend school, are closing this week. The district is also closing one preschool that’s open to all families who meet strict income requirements.
That meant Rosales had to find a new preschool for her son in a different neighborhood. It would add 25 minutes to her commute, but she could still make it to work on time, she thought. Then, more bad news: The district also trimmed her son’s preschool hours from eight hours to seven and a half.
“When I received the call, it was a week after I started school. I was way overwhelmed. I don’t know why we have to find a new school, and I don’t know why they’re cutting my hours. I really need those hours. I literally started crying when I hung up the phone,” said Rosales.
Rosales was confused as to why a preschool would close less than a month into the school year, especially when school district officials are promoting a new Preschool for All initiative, which they pitched as a preschool expansion.
Teachers at her school couldn’t offer much clarity, either. They received an email from the school district’s human resources director, informing them they’d need to choose a new school in which to work. They’re expected to move their belongings into a new school and welcome a new group of students by Oct. 3.
But, aside from that, some teachers are as confused as parents about the district’s preschool strategy.
Janet Staats teaches at Garfield’s child development center in University Heights, one of the programs slotted to close. Staats said district officials didn’t consult preschool teachers before they made the decision and gave them little information they could relay to parents.
“We’re afraid for these families and we’re scared about what’s happening to these programs,” said Staats.
Mirloslava Arteaga, who teaches at Euclid Elementary in City Heights, said she felt blindsided by the changes and believes district officials are creating confusion by not communicating openly with teachers and parents.
“We can’t trust administration because they’re never open about the reasoning behind their decisions,” said Arteaga.
San Diego Unified spokeswoman Jennifer Rodriguez didn’t offer a reason for sudden changes, but confirmed that four preschools are closing. She said those changes are not related to the Preschool for All initiative.
Rodriguez said parents at any of the four preschools scheduled to close are encouraged to call the district to discuss preschool options. District staffers will refer them to a preschool that has open spots, though parents may have to travel to a different part of town.
Right before San Diego Unified kicked off the school year, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer joined Superintendent Cindy Marten to announce what the district called a “game changing” initiative that would allow all families access to quality preschool, regardless of income.
The district will continue to offer free preschool to families who meet the strict income requirements. But for the first time this year, they’ve opened up a certain number of spots for parents who are willing to pay. Those spots will run parents $530 a month for a three-hour slot, and up to $1,060 a month for a full-day spot. Parents pay an annual registration fee of $150.
Despite the enthusiasm with which district officials announced the initiative, a sober look at the program shows it does little to expand access to preschool for parents who make too much to qualify for free preschool but can’t afford to pay what the district is charging.
It’s ridiculously difficult to qualify for free preschool. It’s only available to the poorest San Diegans. Parents who earn minimum wage might actually make too much money to qualify.
It’s possible that closing certain child development centers will allow the district to consolidate resources and offer more preschool seats overall and, in theory, serve more kids.
But Arteaga said that additional preschool seats mean little if they’re not the kind of programs that work for families.
Historically, child development centers have been the Cadillacs of district-run preschools. Instead of the three-hour or six-hour programs offered at most schools, child development centers have taken a more holistic approach to early childhood education and stayed open year-round, from 6:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. – ideal for parents who are working, looking for a job or going to school. Parents must demonstrate need to be eligible for a spot in a child development centers.
But child development centers are more costly to operate. Lucia Garay, director of early education at the San Diego County Office of Education, said part of the problem is that the state does not reimburse school districts enough to cover the entire cost of operating child development centers.
That may be part of the reason why, in recent years, the district has closed most child development centers and trimmed hours at those that remain. In 2008, 25 existed. Now, the district is down to nine. Most offer only 6.5-hour slots.
At the same time, the district has been unable to fill the preschool spots it does offer. In 2014, more than 700 spots went unfilled. Last year, it was more than 1,000.
To Arteaga, it’s no surprise the district has had trouble filling its seats. They’re eliminating the full-day options that help most working families. If the district offered more full-day spots that align with parents’ schedules, there would be no shortage of interested parents, she said.
And one preschool teacher worries that the most recent changes will mean more than an inconvenient disruption for families.
Lori Fletcher, who teaches at Dewey Child Development Center in Point Loma, said some families at her school will transition to other district-run preschools when Dewey closes, but some have chosen to go to preschools outside of the district. Others will forgo preschool altogether because they don’t have means to travel to other neighborhoods.
Juliana Esten has two children at Dewey. She said Dewey teachers taught her oldest child to write when she was just 3 years old. She loved school so much she’d cry if she had to miss a day, Esten said. Her youngest child, also at Dewey, is barely talking, but he’s already learned all the sounds of the alphabet, she said.
“I was devastated when I heard the school was closing,” she said. “If the program didn’t exist, I would never have been able to look for work. I wouldn’t have my job. I might be homeless.”
As sad is she is to leave the school, Esten was relieved to find a preschool in Ocean Beach. That program isn’t operated by the school district, but it works for her schedule and it’s near home.
Did she consider another district-run preschool before selecting the one in Ocean Beach?
“No, not really,” she said. “The school district gave me some options, but they weren’t close by and I knew they wouldn’t work for my schedule. So I didn’t even look.”