Preschoolers. / Image via Shutterstock

Two years after San Diego Unified School District kicked off its highly touted Preschool for All program, district leaders plan to close four more of the child development centers that offer preschool programs for children whose parents are working or going to school and meet income eligibility guidelines.

The child development centers slotted to close include: Kennedy in Lincoln Park, Brooklyn in Golden Hill, Bayview in Pacific Beach and Montezuma in the College Area.

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The cuts follow a string of closures over the past 10 years. In 2008, the district operated 25 child development centers. By 2016, that number was down to nine. The closures planned for next year mean only five centers will remain — for now.

In a recent memo, the district cited low-enrollment and a need to reorganize its early education programs as reasons for the closures.

But child development centers are also more costly to operate. Lucia Garay, director of early education at the San Diego County Office of Education, told me last year that the state does not reimburse school districts for the entire cost of operating child development centers.

“Historically,” I wrote at the time, “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.”

Unfortunately for parents who send their kids to the centers — as well as the teachers who work there — child development centers have been dwindling even after the district launched its Preschool for All program, which officials initially described as an expansion of its preschool programs.

Unlike the preschool for all program that New York City schools offer, San Diego Unified’s version doesn’t actually mean all students are offered preschool spots. The program is extended to parents whose income exceeds the cap for subsidized preschool – meaning those who can afford it.

According to tuition costs listed on the district’s website, after a $150 annual registration fee, parents pay $530 a month for a three-hour preschool slot, $875 for a six-hour slot and $1,000 for a seat in a child development center.

It’s hard to measure the success of the district’s preschool for all program so far — or even compare current preschool enrollment to previous years. For this story, the district did not have data available for how many parents have opted to pay for preschool spots or how many have gone empty. In 2014, more than 700 spots went unfilled. In 2015, it was more than 1,000. (I’ll provide an update if and when the district sends the data).

Some preschool seats have gone unfilled in past years because they’re reserved for students whose parents meet income requirements. But if the district can’t find enough qualified parents to fill those seats — due to onerous paperwork requirements or a lack of preschool options that fit a parent’s schedule — those seats sit empty.

Let’s hear from a preschool parent…

I did a quick Q&A with Chris Mendoza, a single dad whose daughter attends the child development center at Walker Elementary. Walker offers a 12-month program. Other preschool programs only go ten months, or the length of the school year.

Walker isn’t scheduled for closure next year, but I wanted to get a sense of him how a closure could impact his family.

What does a spot at Walker’s child development center mean to your family?

It means almost everything. It allows me to work during the day. It provides an affordable program I can send my daughter to that actually gives her academics as well as time to socialize with other kids her age. It provides things that I can’t really do if I’m watching her. I know I could watch her and she’d be safe, but she wouldn’t have the academic or social experiences she gets at Walker.

How are the teachers?

They’re great. My daughter will come home and try to mimic everything that went on at day at school. She’ll ask me to check the weather, or talk about patterns. And I know it’s not her friend’s she’s copying, it’s her teachers.

Do you work or go to school?

I do both right now. For the past two years, I’ve been able to work and go to school thanks to the program at Walker. I work as a special education substitute. And I go to school at Point Loma to get my teaching credentials. So the (childhood development center) is crucial now more than ever because I’m going to start student teaching and won’t be able to be with my daughter.

How much do you pay?

It’s based on financial need. My daughter’s mom and I aren’t together, but she took care of the application. My daughter goes to school 5 days a week, 6.5 hours a day. It comes out to about $100 a month. There’s no way I could beat that at a daycare or any other preschool. I’ve seen prices and they don’t even come close.

How would it impact your family if it closed?

If it closed altogether, I’d be at a loss. I’ve grown so comfortable with the CDC. If they closed it, I’d have to figure out where she’d go during the day. Right now I can drop her off and comfortably say I know she’s in good hands. I’d have to start the process all over again of finding a place I can trust.

Would you go to a CDC in another part of town if they closed the one your daughter attends?

I’d entertain that idea, but Walker is so central and convenient for me or someone in the family to pick her up or drop her off. Or get to school if there’s an emergency. I’d be open to looking, but if this particular CDC closed, I’d be devastated.

In other news…

No Movement on Improvements to Public Records Request Process

Superintendent Cindy Marten and her administration haven’t been altogether speedy when it comes to providing records and information requested by members of the public. When we analyzed the data several months ago we found it took the district 80 days on average to provide records requested by the public. Media outlets waited 110 days on average.

Last year, after parents across the district complained about long waits for answers to basic questions, some members of the school board expressed sympathy and vowed to look into the issue. In July, trustee John Lee Evans asked Marten for a report within six months explaining how the district handles requests and outlining ways the process could be improved. That deadline came and went, with no report.

At this week’s board meeting, trustees Kevin Beiser and Mike McQuary made virtually the same request when they asked Marten again for a report on how the district handles requests for public information. No school board members mentioned the fact they had already asked for this information back in June or questioned why Marten hasn’t yet provided it.

The Neighborhood Schools Dilemma

This week, we published commentary from a parent and land-use consultant who argued that the school choice debate has missed one key element: the environment. School choice policies may have come from a good place, he argues, but parents and school buses that cart students across town add to the carbon footprint and hurt the environment. Instead, parents should stick to their neighborhood schools and keep children in schools close to home, he wrote.

His argument for neighborhood schools aligns pretty closely with the district’s. A major piece of the district’s overarching goals is keeping neighborhood students to their assigned schools. But the commentary also breezes over the racial implications of keeping kids in their assigned, neighborhood schools. That is, in a city where neighborhoods are already segregated by race and class, a successful neighborhood schooling push could actually make schools more segregated.

But more to the point, more kids in their neighborhood schools might mean the district makes even deeper cuts to its transportation program, a trend that’s been happening for the past eight years. And because fewer buses might actually mean more parents would drive their children to school individually, it’s unclear what impact this would have on the environment even if every student attended their assigned schools.

Privilege Based on Real Estate

This month, news broke that D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson had abused his position of power when he bypassed the city’s competitive lottery system to get his daughter into a highly coveted school. In the process, Wilson broke the very school lottery rules he established.

The controversy comes at a time when D.C. Public Schools is already reeling from scandals. Just last year, investigators found the former chancellor allowed other well-connected parents and government officials to bypass lottery rules. Then, in January, an investigation into D.C. Public Schools revealed a system of passing low-performing students along in an apparent attempt to boost graduation numbers.

Wilson resigned this month, shortly after his attempts to get his daughter into a coveted school came to light.

My friend Conor Williams, a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program, writes that D.C. parents were incredulous when they heard the news – and for good reason. Wilson abused the privilege of his position and broke a rule he had created to benefit his own family. He has no legitimate defense.

But, in another sense, isn’t privilege — or more specifically, real estate — the very currency that determines the quality of a student’s education in most cities across the country?

“In D.C. (and beyond), we allow — we expect — privileged families to game the school enrollment system … we simply prefer they do it by purchasing houses,” Williams writes.

And while we may see that version of privilege as the American way, it certainly doesn’t provide all students in school district with equal access to a quality education. In other words, Williams writes, the current system seems anything but fair.

“Our socioeconomic classes are calcifying through the untrammeled inheritance of social, educational, and material privileges. Nevertheless, ridiculous as it is, wealth-based access to quality public education is a central part of the U.S. meritocracy game. It’s too ubiquitous to question. It’s the air we breathe,” writes Williams.

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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