IT IS 7:30 a.m. in Pomona, and the morning dew still clings to the climbing bars and empty bike stands around Allison Elemen tary School. The school is silent, its doors still locked. Classes won't begin for another hour.
But on one corner of the campus, at the Allison Children's Center, more than a dozen children have already finished a breakfast of fruit, cereal and milk and are hard at play, building castle cities and frontier stockades out of Lego and Lincoln Logs. Many of them have been at the center since it opened at 6:30 a.m, and in an hour some will head for school, while others, preschoolers, will arrive to take their places, grabbing for spare jigsaw puzzles, making scratch-paper airplanes, watching TV cartoons or drifting into another room for a nap on a canvas cot.
Allison is one of 15 child-care centers in Pomona that serve 900 children in 12 different programs. Working mothers with babies head for Park West High School, where infants are cuddled and fed on demand by eight matronly attendants. Toddlers go to Trinity United Methodist Church. Preschoolers get a Montessori-based program at five locations around town (including Allison). Teen-age mothers take their children to a nursery next to the school where they study for high-school equivalency certificates. Six centers serve the 200 children enrolled in federally funded Head Start programs. There are programs for abused children and centers conveniently located near freeway on-ramps for commuter parents. One center, open until midnight, also offers care on weekends and holidays, and includes a mini-infirmary, complete with nurse, for children with non-contagious maladies. From 6 a.m. till midnight, seven days a week all year round, for children age 6 weeks to 14 years, Pomona offers some kind of child care.
In a state that leads the nation in public child-care programs, Pomona is tops. "California has a wider range of programs that are better financed and have higher operational standards than any other state," says David Weikart, president of High / Scope, an Ypsilanti, Mich., foundation that studies the national effect of early childhood education. "It has improved licensing standards, raised teacher training requirements, and in places like Pomona instituted a truly quality program of child care."
Anne Mitchell, co-director of the Public School Early Childhood Study, the first major investigation into the breadth and quality of public day care in America, agrees. "Pomona child care is extraordinary compared to the rest of the country," she says. "A few enterprising districts try to approach what Pomona does, but they don't even come close."
Nationally and statewide, what sets the Pomona system apart is its scope and diversity. The L.A. child-care system may serve more children and wield a larger budget, but it offers only five programs to Pomona's 12. Riverside County's Office of Education equals Pomona in number of programs, but it can't match it in diversity. Berkeley, like Pomona, has a center for the mildly ill, but doesn't offer evening child care. Albany has special-education classes for preschoolers, but has no respite care for abused children, and all its facilities close on weekends. And so on through the state.
"We do a $320-million business with 900 agencies throughout California, and I can say without reservation that Pomona is our exemplary model of how children should be served," says Dr. Robert Cervantes, director of the state Department of Education's child-development division. "Pomona represents the optimum of what can be done in child care in California."
Like all the top programs nationally, Pomona spends more than the average per child ($4,500 as against $3,000), it pays its staff members well ($26,000 a year against a national average of $9,000 a year), it hires specially trained teachers (an early-childhood credential is a requirement), it has low staff turnover rates (a majority have been there for a decade; nationally, child-care workers have a 42% turnover rate, the highest of any occupation listed by the Labor Department), and it consistently scores high on state quality evaluations.
The school board in Pomona is justifiably proud of the system it sponsors. "Child care benefits the community as a whole," asserts Nancy J. McCracken, a member of the board for the past six years. She can explain the secret of Pomona's day-care success. "The creation and expansion of our child-care network, " she says, "has resulted, in large measure, from the imagination and financial ability of one man, Bill Ewing."