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Day care providers face closure after years of teaching preschoolers

When Claudia Mendoza moved to Los Angeles from Bolivia as a teen, she didn't make many friends at her Rowland Heights high school because she was the new immigrant who barely spoke English. Decades later, those same high school classmates are bringing their children to Mendoza’s home daycare, the Joy of Learning Academy, which she has run for 20 years in Rowland Heights.

“I moved my home three times since opening and each time all my families and children followed me,” Mendoza said. The shy immigrant girl is now the sought-after daycare provider with a long waitlist.

In the early years her business depended on finding families who could pay market rates, taking on students for afterschool care, and doing tutoring. Mendoza stayed open long hours, but she always maintained high quality early care.

Then, eleven years ago based on that high quality care, an organization called Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) gave her funding for 24 preschoolers per day to attend Joy of Learning. Mendoza began serving 12 children in a three-hour morning session and 12 children in a three-hour afternoon session. Mendoza finally had a stable income to hire staff and purchase supplies and healthy food for the children’s snacks and lunch.

LAUP provided her with more than funding, she said. There was an expert "coach" who she could turn to for advice and help, and there were the constant evaluations that helped her improve her site, her materials and her teaching practices.

In 2009, Mendoza was recognized as one of six preschool teachers of the year by Los Angeles Universal Preschool.

But now Mendoza and hundreds of other preschools and family child care centers are facing the reality that their LAUP contracts end in June. Unless Mendoza can find alternate funding, or only serve families able to afford private rates, she will have to close Joy of Learning. After 20 years in childcare, the idea of closing makes her sad, not just for herself, but for the many other childcare providers she knows.

“Just seeing that we have so much passion in the field, and that doors can close, it’s kind of discouraging,” Mendoza said.

LAUP’s funding for preschool seats came from a contract with public agency, First 5 LA. It has been known for years that the funding would end in June 2016, and last year the First 5 LA board reaffirmed that there would be no renewals or extensions of the contract.

LAUP funds about 11,000 preschool seats across LA County, and since its inception has provided funding for over 100,000 children to attend preschool. While children and their families will have to find early education elsewhere, some LAUP providers have been able to secure state funding through the California State Preschool Program (CSPP).

But that funding stream only helps the very low-income families. Mendoza, like many childcare providers, serves families whose income is slightly above that of the poverty guidelines but not high enough to afford market rates for preschool.

Ricardo Rivera, Baldwin Park Unified School District 's director of early childhood education, said his district “applied for various grants as we heard the end of LAUP was looming.” While they will lose some seats, Rivera said they were successful in getting CSPP funds. Yet these will only be for the lowest-income students.

“I worry about those families that don’t earn enough for private preschool but earn too much to qualify for CSPP or Head Start,” he said. “Those were the primary families that benefited so much from LAUP and, as the economy continues to improve, these families will see a big impact in their inability to find quality preschool they can afford.”   

Another larger provider of subsidized childcare, the Children's Bureau, will lose some seats due to the LAUP contract ending, but according to its chief executive officer Alex Morales, they have been able to make up some of the gap.

"Fortunately, we are able to survive in our program without quality loss and service volume loss because of our strong philanthropy success and an increase in reimbursement rate by the state department of education that had been taken away in previous years," Morales said.

He does worry, however, about the state of childcare in general due to the LAUP lost funding as "[so] few organizations have the ability to replace LAUP money with philanthropy,” he said.

Claudia Mendoza and some other family child care providers also applied to the department of education, and despite her credentials in the field and her award-winning teacher status, Mendoza was denied.

The Joy of Learning Academy may well close down, but Mendoza said she is doing everything she can to keep it open. A degree in business administration is coming in very handy as she crunches numbers to figure out what she would need to charge parents to cover her costs and make a modest living. Running a childcare center is not cheap, she said.

Her wait list is 20 deep for the current year, and parents have been inquiring about next year for months. “I know the LAUP funding is ending,” said Laura Johnson, a mother of five boys whose third child currently attends Mendoza’s daycare. “My sons have learned so much, and I just wish that they could continue,” Johnson said. Mendoza taught Johnson's son to read at age four, and he loves eating vegetables, a fact Johnson attributes to his healthy lunches at Joy of Learning.

Now she wonders where she will send her twin infants when they are a little older. “What are we going to do when our babies are preschool age?” she asked.

For her part, Mendoza has moments where she thinks about life after childcare. Maybe she will finally get some more sleep, something she has lived without since coming to L.A. as a teen. But then she adds, “maybe if I have to close, I will finish my B.A. and my M.A. at Pacific Oaks college, and then, well, who knows,” she said.        

Correction: The story has been updated to clarify Ms. Mendoza's business in the years before it was supported by LAUP.