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So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Successful parent-toddler PreK literacy program shuttered for lack of funds

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After 19 years in operation, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Family Literacy program will not be funded next year. School district administrators told staff there's no money in the budget to make up for the $450,000 annual grant that had supported most of the program's costs.

Parents and teachers were heartbroken - and held a protest outside L.A. Unified's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday afternoon, hours after what will be the last of it's students at one West L.A. site celebrated their year-end culmination.

“I think its clear to all of us how incredibly important and beneficial this program is to both you and your children,” Jim Chacon, Principal of Venice Skills Adult Center told a packed room said during the ceremony at Shenandoah Elementary school. Situated in a low-income pocket of West Los Angeles, it was one of six schools participating in L.A. Unified's "family literacy" programs.

“I know we’re having a funding issue - and I want you to know that a lot of people are working very hard to have it resolved,” he added, to much applause.

District officials did not return calls or emails for comment sent Friday and Tuesday.

The district's program was unique in the world of early education.

Children aged 2 to 5 attended part-time preschool on an elementary school campus while their parents were enrolled in adult-education classes like English as a second language.

One hour per day, parents and children worked together, learning how to be active readers and play literacy games. There were trips to the library. 

L.A. Unified program coordinator Sharon Polkinghorn said an eight-year evaluation by the independent American Institute for Research found children from this program were in the top half of their class in 5th grade - and were reading above grade level.

Those findings are most meaningful in the context of studies of Head Start and state preschool programs - which show early gains, but no noticeable benefits after second grade.  

Polkinghorn thinks the kids in the program keep stay ahead because parents were taught how to read to them at home.

"It's more than just reading the words,” she said. Rather, parents are talk how to stop and talk to their kids during the process, asking questions like: What's going to happen next?

The program also teaches families, many of whom are immigrants and unfamiliar with the school system, how to advocate for their children's education. 

“In two years, the parents are speaking English, comfortable in the school setting, know how to go to conferences, ask questions," Polkinghorn said. "We know that that impacts the child and they do better in school.”

The program was part time - 16 hours a week - and serving about 30 families every year in each of its six sites. Each family-child pair could participate for two years.

“If the program is closed it’s going to be hard for all of us," said Faviola Jimenez, a stay-at-home Mom originally from Mexico City.

She didn't speak any English when she moved to Los Angeles four years ago. She took classes at Shenandoah Elementary with her daughter, Aileen. When Aileen started kindergarten last year, it was 3-year-old Jaden's turn to start the program.

The program had already been running for seven years when the tobacco-tax funded early education group First 5 LA stepped up, providing a three-year grant. When that ran out, the agency renewed for a five-year period. After that, it kept renewing one-year contracts, but First 5 said the district was aware that the funding was going to stop.

“Grants for the program were scheduled to end this year,” said Francisco Oaxaca, Director of Public Affairs for First 5 LA.

School district officials told staff they can’t afford to fund the program.

The school board is still in discussions over next year's nearly $6 billion budget. It's set to approve the funding plan at the end of June.

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