Believing it's never too early to think about college, Long Beach public officials and educators plan to take their message to the earliest learners — preschoolers.
Their efforts to recruit the children sooner rather than later is part of a broader effort to provide preschool for every child. Among its champions is the new mayor of Long Beach, Robert Garcia, elected in July as the first Latino and gay mayor for the city.
Garcia is making universal preschool, especially for disadvantaged children, a priority of his administration. Drawing from his own background as a five-year-old immigrant from Peru who overcame the challenges of language and poverty through education, the mayor wants Long Beach to become a leader in extending preschool to all.
Universal preschool won't come easily or cheaply. Long Beach, with a population of almost half a million with one in five living below the federal poverty line, has waiting lists for state preschool and Head Start programs that run into the hundreds.
But despite its challenges, the city has succeeded in putting many public school students on track to a college education, in part through a program called the Long Beach College Promise. Started in 2008 as a partnership involving California State University Long Beach, Long Beach City College and the Long Beach Unified School district, the program guarantees students a place in a local college if they make the grade. Students get their first semester paid for by the program.
Garcia sees the city's push to instill college ambitions in preschoolers as part of the same promise.
The program currently starts working with students in fourth grade to set their sights on college. The students are taught what it takes to get into colleges and universities and they tour local campuses. “Now we are going to start that at the preschool level,” Garcia said.
Researchers have long been interested in whether children who attend preschool continue on to higher education, according to Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
“There is certainly research that directly shows kids who went to high-quality preschool programs were more likely to graduate from high school, and … go on to college,” he said.
One of the major studies showing the link between preschool and college dates back to 1972. Known as the Abecedarian study, it was funded by the National Institutes of Health, and conducted out of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Barnett said the decades-long project focused on low-income infants and followed them into adulthood. One group went to preschool and the control group did not.
“Over 20 percent of the kids who went through this [preschool] program went to a four-year college versus just over 5 percent of the control group,” he said. “That’s four times as many kids.”
But Barnett cautions: “Preschool is not a silver bullet.” He emphasizes that quality matters and that early education can’t be the only strategy used to address educational inequities.
As with children elsewhere, Long Beach kids can be held back by economic, health and family conditions that may be beyond the control of educators. One example: only 37 percent of children under five are read to every day by a parent, according to a Los Angeles County Health Survey.
One area that Long Beach officials feel they can have an influence is in helping to create quality preschool programs where needed, and extending the reach of Long Beach College Promise.
Long Beach City College alone has admitted almost 12,000 since 2008 through College Promise. College President Eloy Oakley said that is not happenstance. His staff first meets students who are in the 4th grade and follow them through high school.
“We really begin working with [students] every year until they graduate to ensure that they not only understand what it means to go to community college or university but how to get here and what the expectations are,” he said.
Kids begin touring his campus and that of Cal State Long Beach in elementary school. As they get older, they are taught how to navigate the college application process, learn which study tracks they can choose, and get schooled on how to pay for college.
Oakley said he wants to ensure that “by the time they hit their senior year, there is no excuse why they can't go on and get a college credential.”
Oakley and Cal State Long Beach President Jane Close Conoley have joined the mayor in fundraising efforts to expand preschool slots. Getting a preschool education, Oakley said, will give low-income kids the same chance to go to college as their wealthier peers.
“We put [up] a picture of one of the students who is in preschool today and make it clear that this is the face of the graduating class of 2027,” he said. Then he asks his staff the question: “What are we going to do today to ensure that this student in 2027 will be on the platform graduating?”
Garcia is putting together a team to work on a plan for Long Beach's preschool expansion after studying universal preschool implementation in cities like New York City and San Antonio.
“We’re hopeful that in the next four to five months we’ll have an idea of what this model could be," he said, "and then begin next year figuring out how we’re going to implement that.”