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Eastside Lacks Child Programs, Report Finds

Too few day-care and preschool programs in L.A.'s growing suburbs could put youngsters at a disadvantage, the UC study says.

June 18, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Growing suburbs such as Baldwin Park, El Monte and Montebello on the Eastside of Los Angeles County face severe shortages of child-care and preschool classes compared with affluent Westside communities and poorer South Los Angeles neighborhoods, a new University of California study concludes.

Hardest hit by the disparity are blue-collar Latino families who represent the majority population in those easterly suburbs, said the report released Wednesday by Policy Analysis for California Education, an academic research institute. The shortage of such child-care and preschool openings may have harmful consequences for their children's early development and school readiness, according to the study.

Montebello, with a population that is 76% Latino, for example, had six preschool enrollment spaces per 100 children under age 5, and El Monte, 80% Latino, had five, according to the study.

In contrast, more affluent Westside communities such as Brentwood, Mar Vista and Pacific Palisades had an average of 69 spaces per 100 children.

More surprising was the relatively higher capacity in poorer South Los Angeles communities such as Watts with 25 spaces per 100 children, Athens and Willowbrook with 40, and Hyde Park with 53. Those neighborhoods have benefited from intensive public investment in child care since the 1960s.

The study is likely to have broad implications for Los Angeles County, where officials are investing $100 million in Proposition 10 tobacco tax money for a free, universal preschool system that is in the planning stages.

"County leaders shouldn't have a knee-jerk prescription that we pump more money into communities that have the highest poverty rate," said UC Berkeley professor and study co-author Bruce Fuller. "We need to recognize the success we've had in the last 30 years in targeting preschool expansion in South-Central and focus on where the gaps are the greatest. That suggests turning to the Eastside."

One reason for the disparity, Fuller suggests, is that the largely middle-class and blue-collar Eastside Latino families earn too much to qualify for subsidized preschool and child care but too little to afford the full costs of care, which can reach $8,000 or more annually.

The median income in Baldwin Park, for example, tops $42,400 and Montebello more than $39,900, according to the study. The income cutoff for subsidized care is 75% of the state median income, or about $35,000 for a family with two children.

The scarcity also may be driven by low demand on the part of some Latino parents who are uncertain about the value of preschool and more comfortable keeping their children at home or with relatives.

"I don't think county leaders have a very keen understanding of what Latino families are looking for when it comes to preschool," Fuller said.

Sandra Gutierrez, member of an advisory panel for Los Angeles County's universal preschool initiative, also pointed to language barriers and said Spanish-speaking parents are less familiar with the system and with getting on preschool waiting lists.

Preschool supply in the largely middle-income communities in the northernmost parts of Los Angeles County was also scarce, with seven spaces per 100 children under 5 in Lancaster and four spaces in Palmdale.

Researchers were less certain of what factors might be affecting supply and demand there but suggested that families in those areas face some of the same income restrictions for subsidized preschool as those in Eastside communities. They also theorized that those newer northerly suburbs have less experience in competing for funding.

Los Angeles County planners will solicit focus groups, survey a spectrum of parents and hold community meetings to gauge needs and concerns before deciding where to spend the Proposition 10 money, Gutierrez said.

The PACE study, she said, is a "good reality check. It gets us away from assumptions and, layered with our focus groups and surveys, will give us a good road map to work with."

The report said Los Angeles County officials should not be complacent about the availability of preschool programs in South Los Angeles, where average public school test scores remain relatively low. Rather than adding more space, those communities should invest in improving the quality of preschools, such as better training for their teachers, the report said.

The scarcity of other programs has had a direct effect on Clay Hollopeter, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of San Gabriel Valley. His El Monte facility is open seven days a week and provides educational and recreational activities and meals for 200 to 300 children each day, he said.

"We're overrun," Hollopeter said. "I think that if we were on the Westside or in a more affluent community, we'd see more day care and families could afford to pay for more services."

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