The power of preschool

The parents of a few hundred Petaluma children are desperately hoping to give their little ones the opportunity to receive a preschool education — an experience that has statistically proven to positively impact kids throughout the rest of their lives.

As of March 18, there were 278 kids on wait lists for subsidized preschool programs in Petaluma, according to data from First 5 Sonoma County — a group that promotes and supports the early development of children.

Since 2007, nearly 40 percent of childcare and preschool funding has been cut through the California Department of Education, equating to about 110,000 childcare spaces across the state, according to a California Budget Project report.

Unfortunately, these children are missing out on more than just nap time and an afternoon snack. Studies have shown that children who receive high-quality early childhood education are more likely to be employed and earn a 33 percent higher average salary.

Preschool students are 29 percent more likely to graduate high school, and a child educated in his first five years is 70 percent less likely to be arrested for a violent crime before the age of 18.

While early education is directly linked to future success, access to affordable preschool has become increasingly difficult for parents.

Lara Magnusdottir, resource director for the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, which serves low-income families, oversees the organization's list of families waiting for state subsidized childcare and preschool programs. Countywide, almost 5,000 eligible children up to age 12 who are eligible for subsidized care are unable to access those services.

"It's not first come first serve, so some of them never get a space," Magnusdottir said. "It depends on the age of the child, family income and their location."

But according to early education officials, the high volume of wait-listed families isn't the only roadblock to affordable preschool options.

Many families no longer qualify for the program due to recently reduced income eligibility, which is now capped by the California Department of Education at a gross monthly income of $3,908 for a family of four.

"The biggest challenge for providers and families in the Bay Area is the ceiling that qualifies them for subsidies," said Petaluma resident Susan Gilmore, executive director of the North Bay Children's Center, a nonprofit that provides early education to low-income families. "If you have a family of four that makes $4,000 a month gross income, they no longer qualify. But there's no way they can afford the regional rates for childcare for full-day preschool, which is somewhere around $1,000 a month."

In Petaluma, this means that while most of the very low-income families are served, the cutoff is too low for families with an annual gross income of $47,000 or more.

Since preschool in Sonoma County costs anywhere from $600 to $1,200 per month, factors such as lack of transportation and affordable housing are holding families back when it comes to accessing affordable early childhood education.

"There is an increase in struggling middle-income families that don't qualify for subsidies," Gilmore said. "It's not just a challenge for low-income families anymore."

For families who don't qualify for subsidized preschool, there are some affordable options in Petaluma, such as the free transitional kindergarten program provided by McKinley Elementary School. The one-year program is open to all children born between Sept. 2, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2009.

McKinley Elementary also provides a Head Start program, which has a lower income eligibility requirement of $1,838 for a family of four.

For those families who meet the income eligibility for state subsidized programs, the North Bay Children's Center, 4 C's of Sonoma County and the Petaluma Adult School offer an array of programs to provide children with early education opportunities.

The North Bay Children's Center provides state subsidized programs to low-income families at their McDowell campus in Petaluma, and additional subsidized spaces were recently added to Mary Collins School at Cherry Valley.

The Petaluma Adult School hosts programs such as Avance, Pasitos and Ready for Kindergarten, which aim to provide early childhood education to low-income Spanish-speaking families.

"There are really great programs coming out of our community," said Erin Hawkins, community outreach project manager for the Petaluma Health Care District. "We want people to be aware of those opportunities."

Local advocates of early childhood education hope next week's "Week of the Young Child" events will help shed light on the issue of access to affordable preschool in Petaluma and Sonoma County.

The Week of the Young Child, which runs April 6 to 12, is a campaign put on by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Local events next week will emphasize the importance of early childhood education, as well as provide information on affordable programs in the area.

Early education providers are hoping to partner with more local businesses to invest in affordable preschool, as it lays the foundation for the future workforce.

Right now, Gilmore and her colleagues at the North Bay Children's Center raise money to cover their full cost of childcare services, because the state's reimbursement of $744 a month per child isn't enough.

Gilmore hopes in the future that the state will raise the income eligibility cap so that more parents can afford to send their children to preschool. And she looks forward to Sen. Darrell Steinberg's pending legislation that would extend state-funded preschool services to all 4 year olds.

But until new sources of funding come through, she said events like those planned for next week will start a conversation locally about what partnerships are needed to increase access to preschool.

"We need to be very thoughtful about how we blend these funding sources and opportunities to create a seamless system," she said. "It's going to require schools, the early childhood education community and businesses to partner together."

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@arguscourier.com)