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In an impoverished Silicon Valley neighborhood, a bold approach to preschool

When Hortencia Lujan moved to San Jose, California, from Mexico six years ago, she immediately searched for a preschool for her then 4-year-old son, Andrey. There were no seats available in the Head Start or state preschool programs in her neighborhood of Santee, and the family could not afford a private preschool. So Andrey stayed home with his mom. Sometimes a neighbor minded him.

Andrey had a hard time when he started school, Lujan said. He particularly struggled with being in a group, with sharing. She was desperate for her next two children to get into preschool.

But the odds were stacked against her: In Santee there are only enough licensed childcare seats for 20 percent of children under 5. It's one of many childcare deserts in California.

Then last September, Lujan hit the jackpot for her youngest child, 4-year-old Angela: a preschool slot in a brand new center called Educare.

This new preschool has a bold vision: bring the kind of early education that affluent kids get to an impoverished neighborhood. No number and letter drills here. It's play-based and the curriculum is driven by children's interests and explorations. It's paid for largely by public preschool funds. And Educare also caters to the children not lucky enough to get a preschool seat through free community play spaces.

Educare comes at a time of high need as many low-income, mostly children of immigrants like Andrey Lujan in Silicon Valley, are missing out on preschool, according to a new study of the area by the nonpartisan research group, the Urban Institute.

In Silicon Valley, the report finds, there are expensive, high-quality preschools in abundance, yet they abut neighborhoods where four-year-olds have little or no access to early education. As in Los Angeles, the majority of the children who miss out on early education in this tech hub are Latino kids.

Santee is one of those places.

Where to play?

Walking around Santee, it's easy to observe the twinned problems that Educare is trying to solve: Too many kids don't have access to early education, and for those who are shut out, it's difficult to find even a space to play, much less to learn.

Even though it’s just a few miles from tech giants like Ebay and Cisco Systems, Santee is a different world.

In 1997, the neighborhood came under a court-issued gang injunction, which, among other restrictions, meant residents could no longer hang out in front yards. School and park gates were often locked.

Families go stir crazy indoors, a problem that's often exacerbated by increasing overcrowding, said Dianna Ballesteros of the Santa Clara County Office of Education. Steeply rising rent prices across the Bay Area means that in Santee, "it's a very condensed community,” Ballesteros said. "They’re sharing housing.”

Walking to and from the local elementary school constitutes a daily outing for families. On a recent Thursday, the streets are quiet, birds hum, and mothers arrive to collect children at Santee Elementary school. They have younger children in tow. Some stop and chat outside on the corner where a street vendor sells snacks. Ranchero music pulses from a car stereo.

Elizabeth Alvarez, a longtime San Jose resident and program director at the local school district's Children's Initiative, noted that many of the kids tagging along with their moms should be in infant or toddler care, or preschool. She knows many families desperate for childcare.

“Many times I’ve heard people paying $2 a day, $10 a week for your neighbor to watch your child while you go to work,” she said.

This kind of informal childcare, while common in many low-income communities, is said to be one of the reasons why children start school already behind. Like Hortencia Lujan's son, they are not at the same level when they enter kindergarten as children who attend quality preschool.

Innovating solutions to preschool access crisis

Educare is trying to reach both the students like Lujan's youngest child, Angela, who scored a spot in its preschool program, and other neighborhood children who should be enrolled in early learning programs but are instead tagging along with family.

When a student walks into Educare, they are greeted with a jungle-themed exhibit from the Children's Discovery Museum in the lobby. There are often other children playing there, many of whom don't even attend Educare.

Jacqueline Cortez brings her small children here everyday, she said, though they are not enrolled in the preschool programs. “There are not many places to go in the neighborhood,” she said. “If this place is closed, there is really only the elementary school playground and that’s it.”

Cortez has lived in Santee for years with her husband and three children. They both work low-paying jobs. Cortez works the night shift so she can be with the children during the day. She doesn’t get much sleep, and is desperate for a better job. An Educare staffer is helping Cortez with leads on new job opportunities as her kids jam away on musical instruments.  

It's a preschool cum community center, and from the first steps into it's jungle lobby, it's clear something different is happening here. Right off the lobby is a large play room, complete with children's library, dramatic play area, and a hub of musical instruments. This room too is open to the local community, and is often used by families whose children are on waitlists for preschool.

For those who score a seat, a progressive education

Beyond the free community spaces in the Educare complex, a series of sprawling yards and classrooms spill out.

For those like Hortensia Lujan's daughter Angela, now 5, who are lucky enough to have a seat in an Educare classroom, the program offered is much more similar to that available in neighboring affluent Silicon Valley schools than other California preschools which also serve low-income students. 

The school employs a philosophy known as Reggio Emilia that is based on learning guided by the child’s interests and explorations. The outdoor play spaces look different at Educare, they're markedly bare. That's deliberate, said teacher, Roopali Born.

“If you can look at our yard, there is no play structure,” Born said. “But you know what these kids are bringing? Their creative side.”

So what do the kids do in a yard with no jungle gyms? Born offers an example based on that day’s play. “They … take cardboard and create houses,” she said.

Back inside the four year-old classroom children are serving themselves lunch. Born is intently listening to her preschoolers talk about their favorite Frozen characters. She peppers the lunch table discussion with gentle but probing questions that her students burst with answers to.

Born has been a preschool teacher for two decades and she leaped at the chance to come teach at Educare when the center opened in September, she said.

“Before we opened we had one month of extensive training,” Born said.

On-site teacher training is rare in the preschool world, let alone a one-month intensive. Born said she found it very helpful as there is so much new science and new ways of working with little kids to really help them develop. She also loves that Educare has a teaching coach in every classroom.

The Educare model

The idea for this new preschool center began six years ago when various community members came together to figure out a new path forward for Santee's littlest learners. After much planning, fundraising and construction work, in September last year, Educare, opened its doors with the capacity to serve 168 low-income children.

The Educare model launched 15 years ago in Chicago and now operates 21 schools in 14 states. This center in Santee is its first foray into California, said Lisa Kaufman, its Silicon Valley Executive Director.

Lisa Kaufman hopes to scale up and serve more neighborhood kids. “There is space for a fourth wing where we would love to build and we know from the interest of the families that we would likely be very full very quickly.”

Kaufman estimates it would cost about five million dollars to expand. Despite its location in the cradle of Silicon Valley where tech innovators are pouring millions into education, the school is yet to see any significant venture capitalist funding.

And while this Santee Educare school is too new to show results, Educare sites exist in 20 other locations around the country, and results from these schools-- all with majority low-income children of color -- are promising.