Lindsay Unified offers free pre-kindergarten for all
Lindsay Unified expands their program to provide free preschool for every learner in the school district
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
LINDSAY – Educators have long known the importance of early childhood education programs, such as preschools. There are entire non-profit networks and regional agencies tasked with preparing students for elementary school in the hopes of graduating more teenagers scoring at or above proficiency. The California Department of Education has even suggested the idea of moving toward universal preschool. And in Lindsay, a city with a large migrant population living in one of the most economically depressed regions of the State and nation, universal preschool just became a reality with the start of the new school year.
Cheri Doria, preschool director for Lindsay Unified School District, said the district is now offering free, high quality preschool programming for every learner in the community. When the school year opened on Aug. 14, LUSD added two new preschool sites at Lincoln School, one of six K-8 schools in the district, adding 96 seats to the already 318 seats offered at eight preschool sites between four other campuses last year.
“We are now able to take any preschooler that walks through our door,” Doria said.
The district was able to expand the program thanks to a change in income guidelines for State Preschool, which pays districts for those students whose family’s qualify, and a local change in funding driven by the LUSD Board of Trustees. When the district realized there were not enough families willing to pay privately for preschool, Doria said the Board asked the district office to analyze what it would take to offer free preschool to every learner.
“They analyzed data on those with preschool experience and those without and found a significant academic difference from kindergarten through third grade,” Doria said. “So the Board and district administrators basically said ‘Let’s make this happen. What do we need to do to provide free preschool to everyone?’”
Doria said many families who didn’t qualify for State Preschool in the past are now income eligible under a change in State regulations. For example, a family of four could only make $3,908 per month to qualify for State-funded preschool. But as of July 1, 2017, the California Department of Education increased the income level for a family of four to $4,877. Additionally, State-funded preschools have the ability to accept another 10% of families who are over the new threshold by up to 15%, meaning that those families could have a monthly income of $5,608.55 and still qualify for State-funded preschool. In all, the new guidelines allowed the district to up an additional 48 spots in the preschool program.
To cover the remaining learners in the district, the Board voted to approve Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) funding for students who did not qualify for programs under the existing funding sources. Every LCAP expenditure must be connected to one of eight state priorities in areas of Conditions of Learning, Student Outcomes, and Parent and Pupil Engagement. In addition to per pupil funding, school districts receive “supplemental” and “concentration” grant funding from the State based on the number of English learners, low-income and foster youths it serves.
This added 48 new spots in LUSD’s preschool learning environments. “Parents are beating down our door to get in,” Doria said.
The preschool expansion required a commitment from every level of the district. Doria said her staff had to prepare two new sites over the summer, double their capacity for site reporting to the State and add more learning facilitators and preschool assistants. The district office conducted the analysis to show the need for more preschool learning environments and the school board voted to use LCAP funding to open the program up to every learner.
“Learners can attend any preschool site regardless of K-12 boundaries,” Doria said. “This makes it easier for parents who might live in one part of town but have child care arranged in another.”
Thinking progressively about education is nothing new to LUSD and neither is its forward thinking early education programming. While many districts in Tulare County have just started on-site preschool programs in the last five years, LUSD launched its preschool program in 1998. The program was already 11 years old when Doria took over as director in 2009. She said the previous director had already digitized most files to the point that the district had to purchase the preschool its own dedicated server long before Lindsay transformation into a 21st Century Learning destination.
Inspired by the writings of economist James Heckman, who has spent a career studying the return on investment of early education, Doria is constantly sharing information about the need for preschool. One of her favorites statistics is that every dollar invested in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children produces a 7- to 10% return, per child, per year.
Beginning in 2009, LUSD offered six half-day State Preschool classes educating 288 learners through a combination of First 5 funding, special needs funding and an infant-toddler program. In 2010, the district added its first full-day preschool for Migrant Education students, those whose families relocate regularly due to agricultural work. LUSD began offering private pay preschool for $25 for a full day program and $10 for a half day program in 2012. In 2014, LUSD added another full day Migrant Preschool as several factors led to declining enrollment.
Kindergarten teachers have long known the benefits of preschool programs and at least one LUSD learning facilitator conducted her own research to prove it. In an analysis of her own kindergarten, the educator’s research showed that, on average, learners with preschool experience recognized 46 of the 52 letters (capitals and lowercase) compared to less than eight letters for non-preschoolers. By October, preschool learners could identify the sounds of twice as many letters as non-preschoolers and had triple the phonemic awareness, the ability to string sounds together to make words. By the end of the school year, the learning facilitator reported that learners who attended preschool knew 36 high frequency words whereas those who did not attend preschool only knew 10.
“Principals like to have preschool on site because they know the learners are more prepared,” Doria said. “That means they have a better chance of being life long learners and of meeting all of the benchmarks at each content level.”
Part of the reason Lindsay preschoolers do so well in kindergarten is the extensive performance based data Doria’s team collects on each learner. Each preschool learning facilitator has an iPad mini that they use to record learners sounding out words, take video of them writing letters and identifying colors to track learners’ progress in social-emotional development, language and literacy, English language development, math, visual and performing arts, physical development, history and social science as well as science as part of the California Preschool Learning Foundations.
Every preschool site also uses the Desired Results Development Profile, an assessment based on a teacher’s observation of students in their learning environments. These assessments are entered into the Learning Genie app on their iPad minis. Throughout the year, learning facilitators share this information with parents at least two scheduled parent-teacher conferences, postings in the classroom and at Preschool Parent Advisory Committee meetings, where parents are invited to offer suggestions to improve the program. Even before preschoolers attend their first day of class, Doria said all learners are screened for physical, mental, social and emotional development benchmarks.
LUSD’s preschool program has received a 5 Star rating, the highest rating, for its sites at Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson by the Tulare County Early Stars Quality Rating Improvement System, more commonly known as QRIS.
As part of the preschool, all learners are served a nutritious family style breakfast in the AM session and lunch in the PM session. Doria said family style servings are an opportunity to work on key life skills such as plating their own food, healthy portion sizes and using and understanding different types of utensils. Even when preschoolers go outside for recess, Doria said the play revolves around teaching moments, including games that develop hand-eye coordination, creative thinking and even have mobile book shelves available to students to read under a tree.
“The idea is that every moment is a teaching moment,” Doria said.
Doria said LUSD Preschool still had 31 slots available as of press time, but that if the spots were to fill up the district will prepare to add capacity to accommodate more learners so no one is turned away.
Doria is already looking to expand the preschool program to LUSD’s two remaining K-8 schools, Reagan and Kennedy, in the next few years. She said the ultimate goal is for every 3 and 4 year old within the district boundaries to attend preschool with a full-day program available to every 4 year old. And Doria doesn’t want to stop there. She said she would like to start an infant/toddler program to begin socializing and educating pre-preschool learners. Doria already works closely with the Healthy Start Family Resource Center, which, unlike other areas, is under the umbrella of the Lindsay Unified School District.