By Alex Abels
The final of a four-part series on Jefferson Park and the changing urban neighborhood.
At 1 p.m. on a Thursday in April, four-year-old Tony Williams appears to be living every kid’s dream – whizzing down the slide at the Leslie N. Shaw Park with a goofy smile plastered on his face. Most kids stuck in a classroom would envy Tony on this warm afternoon in Jefferson Park. Unfortunately, Tony is actually the envious one – he wants to go to preschool but can’t.
Tony’s father, Paul, who was recently laid off, thought he had explored all of his preschool options in the Jefferson Park area. He could find nothing in his price range or with an open seat for his child. “There’s only so much I can do,” says Williams. “He should be at school learning to read and count and making friends.”
This is a common problem, not only for residents of Jefferson Park, but for all of Los Angeles. Preschools, especially quality preschools, are out of reach for about half of all four-year-olds in Los Angeles County, mainly due to lack of availability. With 10 million residents, LA County is one of the most heavily populated in America. There are currently more than 155,000 four-year-olds living in Los Angeles, but only about 70,000 licensed spaces exist for them in preschools.
Jefferson Park faces these problems and is even worse off than the average neighborhood in LA. The proportion of residents under the age of 10 – almost 20 percent – is among the county’s highest, according to census data. So with a multitude of children ready for preschool and severe lack of facilities, residents of Jefferson Park have a dilemma.
As is the case with Tony, when children are not at preschool, they’re usually sitting at home with a family member, not acquiring the skills they need to succeed or even excel later in life.
There are a few options for parents like Williams searching for preschools, but most are not feasible and others are not well advertised.
Traditional preschool is private and runs from $700 to $1500 a month for full-time care. This is more than expensive for most families who are trying to make ends meet. These preschools cost 20 to 40 percent of the $32,654 median household income of Jefferson Park, which is not only unreasonable but an impossible expense.
“I would sacrifice so many things for Tony, but I also have to keep in mind to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads,” says Williams.
Another option is the Head Start Program, which provides government-funded education services to low-income children and their families. This program has an opposing cost downside, because families must meet a very low household income in order to be eligible. This leaves lower-middle class residents who make more than $25,000 a year with very few options, especially if they want a quality education for their children. Not to mention, spaces in Head Start are extremely limited in Los Angeles.
That’s why in 2005, the non-profit organization Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) started funding quality preschools, giving parents choices about where they can send their children. LAUP is comprised of private, public, charter, faith-based and family home care programs. The only requirement for a family to be eligible for LAUP is to live in Los Angeles County – there is no limit on income. There is a small fee, but this can be waived if a family can’t afford it.
“We want to fill in the gap for families who want high-quality preschool,” says LAUP Communications Manager Jennifer Quinonez. “There is a serious need in this county to educate children and get them ready to succeed in kindergarten. They need a safe environment, and we can give them that.
That is why LAUP has funded hundreds of preschools since 2005 using a 5-star quality rating and improvement system so parents can know exactly to what type of institution or center they are sending their children. A quality preschool has small class sizes, focuses on developing a child academically as well as socially, and employs well-educated teachers with good pay.
LAUP serves 10,000 children per year in 325 preschools across Los Angeles County. Three of those preschools are inside of Jefferson Park proper: Glenn Family Childcare Center, Hershey’s Early Learning Childcare Center, and Twenty-Fourth Street Early Education Center.
And the research supports what LAUP is trying to promote. Raising student achievement in elementary and secondary schools and closing achievement gaps between groups of students are national goals, and preschools has been proven to help. African American and Latino students, as well as economically disadvantaged students, have lower levels of proficiency in several academic measures than white and Asian students, according to the RAND Corporation’s study “Who is Ahead and Who is Behind?”.
Jefferson Park is composed of 50 percent Latinos and 47 percent African Americans, and the largest proportion of residents make less than $20,000 per household per year.
English learners and students whose parents did not graduate from high school are the two largest groups who fall short of proficiency in English-language arts and math. It is unfortunate, then, that almost a third of residents in Jefferson Park are foreign born and more than 40 percent of residents over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma. These statistics do not encourage high hopes for achievement in the area.
But this is where preschool can help. Several studies have proved preschool’s success in fostering academic achievement, and the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study is the most reputable. According to the study, high-quality preschool programs for young children living in poverty contribute to intellectual and social development, increase school success and economic performance, and reduce instances of crime in adulthood. The study also confirms these effects are long term, lasting into adulthood.
“Children need a strong foundation before they even enter kindergarten, because if they start behind then they’ll stay behind,” says Quinonez.
It is also proven that the most important years of a child’s development occur in the first five years of life – a four-year-old child has twice as many active brain connections as an adult. That is why LAUP believes educating children early is so imperative.
“It’s the simple things you don’t think about – learning how to stand in line, asking for help, small little social and emotional skills. Preschool is basically a jumpstart for these things that will help them in kindergarten and throughout their lives,” says Quinonez.
Parents can even benefit from a child attending preschool, as they can learn tools like the proper nutrition for their children and which books to start reading at home. These are benefits that Williams doesn’t receive.
“I’m really sad Tony isn’t getting the things he deserves,” says Williams. “Maybe if I had known all our options, things would be different.”
To see some options for preschool in Jefferson Park, see the interactive map at the top of this post.