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LAUSD’s new early education program for children under age 5 is threatened by challenges

Mike Szymanski | April 25, 2017

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Early ed students learning the ukulele. (Courtesy LAUSD)

LA Unified’s new Expanded Transitional Kindergarten program, which is serving nearly 30,000 children younger than age 5, is already facing challenges that threaten it, and the district will assess it at the end of the school year.

Dean Tagawa, the executive director of the Early Childhood Education Division, said that a $5 million hold on state funding, outdated eligibility requirements, and an increase in state fines are hurting the program now offered in 288 centers. He presented his report that updates the ETK program Tuesday at LA Unified’s Early Childhood Education and Parent Engagement Committee.

“The eligibility to get into the programs is based on very, very old data from 2006, and it’s now 2017 and that becomes an issue,” Tagawa said. “Because when families do not qualify they end up somewhere else, often sitting at home in front of a television.”

Another challenge, Tagawa said, is that Gov. Jerry Brown has asked for a pause in early education funding, and the LA Unified program costs the district $5 million this year. “For LA Unified that is over $5 million, so anything you can do to get him to release that money would help,” Tagawa told the committee. “It’s a lot of money, and we are turning away families.”

Tagawa said that Transitional Kindergarten and the new Expanded Transitional Kindergarten filter students into public traditional schools, where state funding kicks in at age 5. Tagawa said that introducing the children and families to LA Unified at an early age makes it more likely they will stay in the public school system.

“Enrollment is growing, and we need to be able to provide more seats, but families aren’t eligible,” Tagawa said.

Dean Tagawa, LAUSD’s Early Childhood Education executive director.

Another setback has been nearly double the citations of inspections by the state Department of Social Services that oversees the early ed programs. LA Unified’s citations went up from 24 in the 2015-16 school year to 41 this school year. The citations generally involve things like not having a trash can covered with a lid, or not having protection over an electric outlet, Tagawa said.

“We have increasing pressure from the Department of Social Services, and the licensing organization seems to be very focused on LAUSD,” Tagawa said. “Our centers get visited four to eight times a year.”

School board member Scott Schmerelson said, “I don’t understand that because the centers are very clean.”

Early education expansion has been a key campaign issue for school board President Steve Zimmer, who has lobbied in Sacramento for allowing children younger than age 5 into the district.

DSS citations (Courtesy LAUSD)

Tagawa said at the end of this school year, the teachers and aides will gather from all 288 centers for the first time to discuss best practices and aspects that didn’t work. He said the district did 131 professional development trainings, and for the first time teacher aides are included in the training.

The district is involving more social-emotional learning techniques and is moving away from thematic units and teaching deep concepts, Tagawa said.

“If we are going to do this well, we need to put professional development behind it,” Tagawa said. “A lot of times the aides are just as important as teachers.”

Tagawa noted that the district was going to start six early dual-language programs but has expanded it to eight this year. He also noted that there are four early ed nature centers in schools where no public parks are nearby. The district plans to expand the nature centers to 16, with four before the end of the year and eight more next year.

An early ed center. (Courtesy LAUSD)

One of the committee members from the LA Preschool Advocacy Initiative, Aracel Sandoval-Gonzalez, suggested that the district consider a fee for parents who don’t meet the free eligibility requirements. “Then, when they turn 5 they stop paying, and it also creates revenue for the district and you don’t have them starting anywhere else.”

Former school board member David Tokofsky said during public comment that it was important for LA Unified to invest more in early education and lobby city, state, and federal officials for more money to help those programs.

“LA Unified can be ahead of those that have done nothing, and can actually move the district forward,” Tokofsky said.

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