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For Middle Class Hispanics, Preschool Not an Option

Posted: Mar 10, 2012

SAN DIEGO – Ivette Otero and her husband are typical middle class parents. He works in construction, while she’s a stay-at-home mom raising four kids. They get by, if only just, and for their youngest son, that means missing out on preschool and the chance to develop critical social and academic skills needed in kindergarten and later years.

"My son did not know all the letters of the alphabet, did not recognize words and numbers like other classmates who had preschool education," says Otero of her 5-year-old son, who recently began kindergarten in Chula Vista, just outside San Diego.

All three elder siblings had attended preschool prior to entering kindergarten, she adds, but when it came time for the youngest to enroll, her husband’s slight salary increase disqualified them from the subsidized preschool program.

She tried to teach him at home, she says, but noticed there was a gap between her son and other students once he got to kindergarten.

The Otero's are not unique.

Families like the Otero’s often fall just slightly above the $3,900 per month maximum allowable income level set by the school district in order to qualify for free preschool programs. At the same time, federally funded programs like Head Start, which aim to provide educational and health services to low income families, has a cutoff of $22,000 per year for a family of four, just shy of the federal poverty guideline.

Slightly more than a fifth of the 3 to 4 year old children in the county are enrolled in subsidized preschool programs – about half the number who are eligible, leaving the rest to seek private pay options if they can afford it.

Full-time enrollment at private preschools, meanwhile, typically runs anywhere from $700 to $900 a month, while half-time enrollment – meaning around 4 hours a day – can cost upwards of $400 a month.

Given the costs, many middle class families are beginning to look for alternatives.

Passed in the fall of 2010, SB1381 promised just that. Known as the Kindergarten Readiness Act, the bill called for the establishment of statewide Transitional Kindergarten programs for children whose fifth birthday falls after the September cutoff date. Governor Jerry Brown recently eliminated funding for the program, however, arguing schools could put the estimated $230 million in savings to support existing programs.

That left ‘Tiny Tots,” a two-and-a-half month program for children between 3-5 years old that meets twice a week for three hours. While nowhere near the hours spent in preschool, at under $200 a month, the program has proven a huge draw for middle-income families.

“One time I got there at 5:30 a.m. and it was too late, the class I wanted was full and I had to take my son to another recreational center farther from home,” says Michael Barnes, a 50-year-old father of two, one of whom is entering kindergarten this July.

With only five centers citywide offering the Tiny Tots program, which only takes walk-in registration, parents line up as early as one in the morning to make sure their kids have a place by the time the doors open at eight.

Despite their enthusiasm, those involved with the program say it isn’t designed to be a replacement for preschool, and shouldn’t be seen as such.

"We are not state qualified teachers because this is not a preschool, it's a recreational program," explains Margaret Campos, a long time teacher at the Loma Verde Recreational Center, which offers the Tiny Tots program.

Children learn colors and songs in an environment that does foster social skills, says Campos, who has been with the program for 30 years. They are not taught some of the more basic skills that children in preschool are exposed to, however, including letter recognition, numbers and how to write their names.
Those that can afford it, like Sandra Borruel, have turned to private schools.

Borruel enrolled her son in a private program about two months before he started kindergarten and while she admits it was costly, she says it was worth it.

“I volunteered in my son's classroom in kindergarten and I remember I could see the difference between kids with preschool education and those without it, especially in social skills and discipline,” says Borruel, whose son is now in first grade.

As for Otero, she says her son has since managed to catch up with his kindergarten peers, though it came with months of struggle that might have been avoided had he attended preschool. “At that time,” she notes, “it just wasn’t a choice open to us.”

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