By Leisel Bogan
New America Media
PACOIMA, Calif. On a street riddled with potholes, “Auntie Di’s Preschool,” as Diana Smith calls it, does not look like much more than a house with a banner dangling from a tree. But stepping past the front gate and into the bright, colorful interior of the school, it is immediately evident that much work and care has gone into developing the preschool Smith runs in a low-income neighborhood of Pacoima.
“I have a waiting list of twenty kids who could be here, but they’re at home. All five preschools in the area, including mine, are full,” says Smith who has provided child care and preschool education in the area for the past 11 years.
Two sunlit rooms are filled with items conducive to learningposters of the alphabet, beautiful birds in clean cages, and labels in English and Spanish denoting every item. One room is the classroom, and the other, filled with learning stations at various tables, Smith calls the “lab.” Children are taught the alphabet, numbers one through 30, how to write their first and last names, colors, seasons, patterns and music, among other subjects.
But Smith’s home daycare was not always a preschool. “When I saw as a childcare provider that the kids were going to kindergarten without knowing numbers and the alphabet, I applied for LAUP so I could turn a childcare facility into a school,” she says. Smith received funding from Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), a program that funds preschools throughout the L.A. area that meet their eligibility standards. After receiving the funding, Smith conducted research to make sure she could obtain the highest quality standards rating availableachieving a five on LAUP’s 5-Star Quality Assessment.
Smith is unique not only in the quality of care she provides, but how she provides it. Most of her students are Latino, and speak Spanish. So her classes are taught in English and Spanishthough Smith is African-American. She learned Spanish so that she could meet the needs of her changing community. One student, who only spoke Spanish when she arrived in the classroom, quietly speaks English now as well.
“They have to learn it for grade school. Having both (languages) is extremely important,” she says. To her right a small, quiet boy enters the room. “He only likes to speak in sign language to me,” she adds while she speaks sign language to the students. The students eagerly sign back.
“If a family makes more than the low-income requirement they can still come to my school with a small family contribution. If they qualify for being low-income, they can come to my school for free,” Smith says. “But there just aren’t enough facilities to meet the need in this area.”
The goal of LAUP, which funds Smith’s program, is to provide universal, high-quality preschool education to every four-year-old in Los Angeles County regardless of family income level. The independent corporation is funded by L.A.’s First 5 Commission, which seeks to get all L.A. kids to attend preschool. The Commission was established by Proposition 10, which called for a fifty-cent per pack tax on cigarettes and a comparable tax on other tobacco products generating an estimated $700 million annually for children five and under.
“Analysis has shown that investments in early childhood education can ultimately save money. The government and, by extension, taxpayers and businesses, stand to benefit,” says Dana Shultz of the RAND Corporation.
The RAND Corp. has found that there are impressive public benefits available to California in return for educating its preschool-age children. Despite the high cost of these programs, in the long run, the RAND report states, the economic and social benefits will outweigh taxpayer costs.
But programs like Diana Smith’s in Los Angeles are few and far between. Particularly “needy” zip codes like Pacoima do not have enough facilities or teachers to provide education to the continually growing population of four-year-olds.
“I’m operating at full capacity here,” says Smith as children begin to trickle into her classroom. LAUP’s funding is limited and there is a high demand for preschool programs.
While Smith battles to maintain her facility by meeting LAUP requirements, city zoning requirements, and state child-care facility requirements, other four-year-olds in her neighborhood do not have access to preschool. This is why Advancement Project Los Angeles, LAUP, and Public Counsel Law Center, among others, have taken steps to ensure that more four-year-olds are not left at home when they could be learning in classrooms like Smith’s.
“I grew up in this neighborhood, I’ve been here forever, and mothers can walk their kids to my school. We have a need here,” she says. “I know that the five public schools in this region with preschools have huge waiting lists. I have a waiting list. If I leave so I can get a larger facilitywhat happens to all of those kids? The need is here.”
The need is there, but the facilities and teachers, according to many analysts and Smith’s own experience, are not.
“If preschool funds were made available tomorrow, there simply would be no ready space for the program to be delivered to many of the children who need it most,” states the Advancement Project’s February 2007 report.
Despite the high need and few providers, Smith’s school stands as a testament to the benefits of providing early education. Her students thrive in the public school nearby after graduating her preschool program, and her current students are eager to learn.
“These kids are going to make a difference. And I will find a way to get more of them into my school. I will. These kids really need to learn,” said Smith.
Leisel Bogan works with the Public Counsel in Los Angeles.