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Southland preschools in a space squeeze

Playgrounds, qualified staff are part of the need. Advocates hope for state bond funds.

July 16, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Katelynn Hernandez and her friends are busy in their play office, punching numbers on a calculator and letters on a typewriter and forming their names in blocks.

In the suburbs, this would be business as usual for a bunch of 4-year-olds. But in Santa Ana, preschoolers mostly stay at home with their Spanish-speaking mothers or relatives.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $50-million preschool initiative, passed in 2006, has not yet brought universal preschool education to needy cities such as Santa Ana. Despite being flush with new state money, Santa Ana still lacks the buildings, open space for playgrounds, parents who can afford the schools, and qualified providers to create a successful citywide preschool program.

About 10% of the city's preschool-age children attend, according to Enlace, a partnership of local colleges, public schools and community organizations. Three of every four children in the city enter kindergarten to learn English.

Although Katelynn's preschool, Hands Together, has received money to double its capacity, the school "is scrambling for a space to put the kids," said Roseann Andrus, a child care project manager with the United Way. "In many communities, there just isn't the space that's needed."

Preschool advocates in Santa Ana say there is a larger demand for preschool but there is not enough space.

Several of them are lobbying state legislators to use state bond money on preschool construction.

"That is the large-scale intervention that we will need to tackle this problem," said Catherine Atkin, president of the nonprofit advocacy organization Preschool California.

For-profit companies have avoided opening preschools in communities where parents can't afford the tuition and where land and rents are expensive.

"Seasoned providers want to make a center and they are competing with Starbucks for space," said Laura Escobedo, Los Angeles County child care planning coordinator.

Economically depressed areas remain the most challenging places to create needed preschool slots, said Gary Mangiofico, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Universal Preschool, which developed 12,000 part-time preschool slots for 4-year-olds in Los Angeles County.

Mangiofico laments that "with all the work we have accomplished, there is still only a 50% chance for kids to go to preschool" in Los Angeles County.

In poor cities, few public agencies have the expertise to find locations and develop business plans, he said.

Finding places in Bellflower and Cudahy, for example, has been very difficult because the cities are built out, said Keith Malone, Los Angeles Universal Preschool spokesman.

Using space inside public schools is the cheapest alternative, but in Santa Ana and other communities, there would still be a shortfall. For example, even if every available space in Santa Ana's public schools were used for preschools, there would still be thousands of children unserved, according to a 2005 United Way survey.

Preschool providers working outside the public school system face other challenges, including a rigorous review by the city Planning Commission.

Providers also need a state license, which requires what many locations in Santa Ana do not have: a significant amount of outdoor space.

Kidworks could open only after receiving special permission from the state because its outdoor play space is smaller than required, said Chief Executive Ava Steaffens. Approvals took more than one year to obtain.

At Hands Together, the struggle for funding and the jumble of bureaucracy have become a tradition. Officials applied for numerous grants and solicited private donations. Without $250,000 in private donations annually, the center would close.

"We've always been swimming upstream. We have to raise so much money even after getting grants," said the Rev. Brad Karelius of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah, which opened Hands Together seven years ago. The center has received $362,000 in new state funding to increase the program's capacity but it is unclear where additional space can be found.

Yet center officials are working hard over the summer to find space to open a second center by fall. They say they are inspired to search by children such as Katelynn, who is speaking English and thriving.

"I really like coming to school," Katelynn said. "I like practicing writing my name."

Katelynn said that when she grows up, she'd like to be a police officer.

As visitors leave, she continues punching her calculator and says, "Thank you for visiting my classroom."

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