Low-Income Preschoolers in Freefall

Low-Income Preschoolers in Freefall

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In a scene that is likely to be repeated in school districts throughout California in coming weeks, teachers and staff at the Helen Turner Children’s Center in Hayward spent last week packing boxes, hugging their colleagues and students goodbye—and collecting their last paychecks.

The center, which provides nearly 12 hours of care a day to 267 low-income preschoolers, was forced to shut its doors on Thursday, a victim of some $1.2 billion in proposed budget cuts to early childcare programs around the state.

In May, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would slash spending on extended-care programs by 40 percent, forcing districts to make deep cuts and working parents—most of whom have very limited options—to scramble for new childcare arrangements.

In preparation for the cuts, Hayward’s school board voted to issue pink slips to 48 full-time-equivalent positions last spring.

Other districts are planning similar cutbacks. Riverside County’s Office of Education warned 60 child development centers that they might have to drastically curtail programs, said Scott Moore, senior policy advisor at the nonprofit Preschool California. Shasta County closed down preschool services for 155 low-income children in June. Oakland and Berkeley schools have sent layoff notices to dozens of teachers and staff.

“We have not received additional information from the California Department of Education,” said Lety Salinas, director of academic affairs at Hayward Unified School District (HUSD), which means that the district must assume the May cuts will happen. She said HUSD’s Child Development Programs—which are being cut by 87 percent—have no carryover of funds or reserves to operate after July 15.

In addition to the center serving preschoolers, Hayward shut down four extended-care programs serving K-2nd-grade students and five satellite sites providing daycare to low-income infants and toddlers.

Helen Turner Center is likely to reopen in August as a half-day preschool program—the only childhood education program that was not cut in Schwarzenegger’s budget. But Rebecca Schultz, director of HUSD’s Child Development Programs, points out this isn’t much solace to many parents.

The full-time extended care program operated 246 days a year, including summer, and served 3- and 4-year-olds, while the half-day preschool program will be just 180 days and will be available only to 4-year-olds.

Most of the students at the Center are Latinos and 75 percent are English learners. The more time they spend in school, the more their language skills improve. “This is the time when they can increase their vocabularies and truly catch up,” said Schultz, who has a background as an elementary school teacher and reading coach.

Parent Johanna Giraldo, who works the graveyard shift at UPS, said the center’s shutdown means she’ll have less time to rest up during the day. Moreover, her 3-year-old daughter will not be eligible for preschool for another year.

Schultz said she hopes to rehire some of the 11 teachers and 27 assistants who were laid off from Helen Turner. But Nglege Williams, who has six years of teaching experience, is not feeling optimistic, since she is further down the seniority list.

“I probably need to work five part-time jobs to pay my mortgage,” said Williams, who recently bought a house in Oakland.

Meanwhile, in the Oakland Unified School District, whose early childhood budget was slashed from $18 million to $3.2 million, the closures are slated to start in a couple of weeks.

Lynne Rodezno, director of OUSD’s Early Childhood Education, told parents at a meeting last week that the first cuts, in extended childcare for 1st through 5th graders, will go into effect on August 2. The extended-care program for kindergartners will continue, however.

Without the program, many young children will have no place to go for the rest of the summer.

“I need to quit work after all,” said Griselda Almanza, a Mexican immigrant with two young sons who has been able to work as a house cleaner only because her kids have childcare during the day. She has no other support as a single mother. “It is going to be very difficult,” she said.

In addition, seven Oakland centers are due to be closed in August, including Hintil Kuu Ka Childhood Development Center. “It is the only Native American childhood development center in Oakland,” said Alicia Middleton, who hates to see her three children lose out on the opportunity to continue to learn about the culture and history of their ancestors.

Middleton said her children are being redirected to Laurel Childhood Development Center, which is further away from their home and which they do not want to attend. But she can’t afford private childcare on her salary as an assistant administrator at UC Berkeley, so they have no choice.

Along with the closures, 39 teachers will be laid off, on top of eight layoffs in May. It remains unclear whether those layoffs—which were not conducted according to seniority, and therefore include people with 10 to 20 years of experience—will be permanent.

Kathy Faez, an Iranian immigrant and preschool teacher at Highland Childhood Development Center with 15 years of experience, is not among those being laid off. But she worries that with the drop in preschool enrollments due to the elimination of 3-year-olds from the program, fewer teachers will be needed.

In Berkeley, meanwhile, all 24 preschool teachers and 50 instructional assistants in three early childhood development sites received layoff notices last week that will become effective by the end of August.

Maria Carriedo, principal of the Berkeley Unified School District’s Early Childhood Development program, said the program’s $800,000 reserve is almost gone. “After August 31, we don’t know what our program is going to look like,” she said.