Two Westview preschoolers count seeds as part of a class exercise. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Four years ago this month, my wife and I jammed every belonging we could carry into a small SUV, buckled our sixth-month-old daughter into her car seat, and headed west from Wisconsin to San Diego. We landed in town on a Sunday night, and I clocked in at Voice of San Diego at 9 a.m. the next morning.

For most of that first year, while my wife looked for work, we were a single-income family. Money evaporated the moment my paycheck hit our bank account. Childcare could have helped my wife with her job hunt, but we simply couldn’t afford it.

The Learning Curve

When my wife landed a job, and it came time to look for a preschool, we didn’t know where start. Once kids reach kindergarten, parents find a built-in community of other parents and educators to help troubleshoot or connect with resources.

Before that, though, parents are mostly on their own. It’s the informational dead zone of parenting. This is ironic, given the large and growing body of research that shows early childhood is the most important time in a child’s lifelong education.

But finding an affordable preschool is a challenge in itself – a quality preschool, for a parent hustling just to put food in the pantry, seems a thing of luxury. And for that matter, what does “quality” mean for a preschool, anyway?

Luckily, it’s just gotten easier for San Diego parents to find answers to those questions. The San Diego County Office of Education, in partnership with the YMCA Childcare Resource Service and with funding from First 5 San Diego, has rolled out a new website to help parents navigate the network of preschool programs in the county.

It’s part of a San Diego Quality Preschool Initiative that’s been in the works for years. Along with help in locating programs, the website includes a rating system that measures a program’s quality. The ratings go from one to five, based on seven elements, like adult-to-child ratios, safety, staff members’ education and the nature of interactions that take place between kids and adults.

“Research shows that early learning really makes a difference, but until recently we haven’t had a way to define quality. If programs are publicly funded, we want to make sure they’re quality,” said Lucia Garay, director of the San Diego County Office of Education’s early education unit.

Not every early education program in the county is rated, but those that participate may be eligible for financial support or professional development training sessions for teachers, for free or at reduced cost.

All Head Start programs in the county are required to participate, and most state preschools locally are choosing to do so, said Garay (except those in San Diego Unified, which is restructuring its program).

Garay and her team are also working to recruit more private preschools, which typically don’t receive federal or state funds but are often more affordable options for parents (my daughters attend a private preschool). And because a large number of cash-strapped families choose Family Child Care Centers – the mom-and-pop programs run out of homes – they’re also a recruitment priority.

“If I’m a working parent, I know there are three things that I have to consider before I can even think about quality: Is this place available when I need it? Can I get my kids there and get to work on time? Can I afford it?” Garay said.

“Once I’m there, I can look at safety and then at the interactions between adults and children. Ultimately, I want this to be a place where I can be at work and be confident that my baby is safe, that they’re going to develop appropriate relationships, build language and learn concepts as well or better than if I was able to stay home with him or her.”

What Else Principals Do

Education reporter Dana Goldstein once wrote that principals are the most important and least talked about figures in school reform. An effective principal has the ability to multiply the impact of good teaching – making sure teachers have time to plan and collaborate, and that they stick around for the following year. In fact, evidence suggests an effective principal could attract teachers to a high-poverty school and retain those who’d otherwise leave.

In San Diego Unified, however, principals are bearing the brunt of budget cuts. The results of a new survey of principals, vice principals and central office managers across the district show principals this year are taking on the work of clerical positions that haven’t been filled, cleaning up after students because custodial staff have been slashed, even trying to find their own teachers.

In addition to all this, there’s another role they’re expected take, one that’s central to the district’s overarching plan to create a quality school in every neighborhood: recruiting parents.

Principals are the public face of each school in San Diego Unified. Ask to take a tour of a school, a principal will most likely show you around. If you’ve already chosen a school for your child, chances are principals had a lot to do with it.

The school district knows this, too. When district staff asked parents a few years ago what lures them to certain schools, they found a top response to be the quality of parents’ interaction with principals or teachers.

The problem for already time-strapped principals is that with an impossible list of tasks to accomplish, they’ll have even less time to engage with prospective parents. That may sound like a relatively small problem. But in the district’s sweeping plan to create a quality school in every neighborhood, they’ve said one indicator of a school’s quality is the percentage of kids it serves from the surrounding neighborhood.

A study published last year, however, showed 42 percent of parents across the district choose to send their kids to schools outside their neighborhood – about the same percentage of students as 2011, when the district began its effort to keep kids in neighborhood schools.

If district leaders want to improve those numbers, they may want to consider how they can free up more of principals’ time to spend on recruitment.

Housing Crisis in Foster Care

Lack of affordable housing options in California is nothing new. But children in foster care are facing a housing crisis of a different kind. A report published this week by the Chronicle of Social Change lists California as one of 10 states where the number of children in foster care has increased since 2012, while the number of available beds has gone down.

It’s a national concern that impacts different states for a variety of reasons. The opioid crisis, for example, has led to an increase in drug-addicted parents. An increase in drug-addicted parents has led authorities to remove more children from their homes due to neglect and place them into the foster care system. More children could enter California’s foster care system if their parents are deported.

For the past few years, California has taken on a massive effort to reform the foster care system, relying less on group homes and placing more children with family members or foster homes. The problem is that there just aren’t enough families willing to take in foster children.

“People don’t realize this is the silent crisis for foster children,” said Jeff Weimann, executive director of Angels Foster Family Network, which recruits and trains prospective foster parents.

“We’ve turned away about 100 kids this year just because we haven’t had homes for them,” said Weimann, who’s also a former foster parent.

Dreamers, Child Coyotes and More

A new art installation went up at Liberty Station this week to raise awareness for the 800,000 young people nationally who could be impacted by changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. An estimated 40,000 of those who currently have or are eligible for DACA protections live in San Diego County.

Members of the public can participate in the project by sitting for photos and watching as giant mugshots are plastered on nearby buildings.

“It’s a platform for everyone who believes that we need to sort out the situation for dreamers by December,” lead artist Jaime Scatena told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

I’ve written before about the business of smuggling people into the United States, a lucrative enterprise guided by smugglers, or coyotes. A story from Al Jazeera this week says that some cartels are now using children as coyotes:

“The cartel uses (a child) as a people smuggler because, as a minor, he’ll most likely get a ride back to Mexico if caught by the US border patrol. From there he can make the trip again, and again.”

This week the California Charter Schools Association published new numbers that show more students across the state are opting for charter schools. An estimated 630,000 students are enrolled in 1,275 charter public schools this year, according to CCSA’s numbers. That’s up from 602,837 students enrolled in 1,254 charter schools last year.

Philanthropic giant BIll Gates is now putting up money to fund “locally driven solutions” to improving student achievement.

A new report from the San Diego Hunger Coalition says $145 million in federal funds for school meals went untapped last year in San Diego County.

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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