When the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked countries based on the number of children enrolled in preschool, the United States came in near the bottom of all developed nations. Just over half of all American three and four year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 2013, compared to numbers near 100 percent for countries like France, New Zealand, Norway, and Spain.
So who is missing out on preschool in Los Angeles, and why?
One answer comes from researchers at the Advancement Project: Latino children aren't enrolling in early education programs, because there are not enough childcare seats in the places where those children live.
The researchers used census data to determine the number of children under five living in each zip code in Los Angeles County – about 650,000 children in total. Researchers also pulled data from the Department of Social Services showing the number of licensed childcare seats available in each zip code.
Laying one data set over the other, researchers were able to see areas where children had easy access to preschool, and where they didn’t. They discovered a mismatch of where preschool seats were available and where they are most needed.
Kim Pattillo Brownson, director of educational equity at the Advancement Project, said only 41 percent of all kids countywide have access to licensed childcare seat. Since two thirds of all children under 5 in the county are Latino, even if seats were distributed equitably, Latino children would still miss out at higher rates than their counterparts.
“[L.A.] is one of the largest population centers in the country for young Latino children so there is a clear racial skew to these access gaps,” she said.
But seats aren't distributed equitably across the region.
“So there are some pockets where there is an excess of early learning centers,” said Pattillo Brownson. “And there are some places where the waitlists go on for years.”
The top places to access preschool in the county – cities like Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica and La Canada Flintridge – are also cities where the majority of children under five are white.
It’s a very different story in the cities where a preschool seat is hardest to find.
In Latino neighborhoods — cities like Bell, Cuday and South L.A. — the number of available seats is very low, Pattillo Brownson said.
“In these hyper-dense, hyper-segregated, largely Latino communities, what we’ve found is that the numbers are often times below 20 percent,” she said.
It’s a problem that Ana Martin, a Norwalk mother of three, has encountered. In Norwalk, just 31 percent of all children under five have access to a childcare seat.
When her first child, Cecilia, was a toddler, she tried to enroll her in local preschools. They were either full or said the family earned too much money based on her husband’s jobs in construction that pulled in about $600 a week.
“With my husband’s monthly wage we were like $110 over the limit so we didn’t qualify,” she said. The family couldn’t afford to pay for private preschool, so Cecilia missed out.
Two years later Martin received some advice from a neighbor on how to get her second child, Fernando, into preschool: Get creative.
“She suggested that I say I work independently and show proof that my income is low enough to qualify, and that’s how my second child got in,” Martin said.
As she saw her son blossom in preschool, she wished she had done likewise for her first child.
“When they were small, because they were close in age, I really saw the difference between my son who went to preschool and my daughter who stayed home with me,” she said.
Not only did her son learn to hold his pencil correctly, he socialized much better with kids, paid attention in class better, and knew more numbers and letters when he started kindergarten, she said. Martin now hopes her youngest, two year-old Sebastian, gets into preschool when he turns three.
This Norwalk family’s experience is something Sandra Gutierrez believes is leading to a “crisis in Los Angeles.” Gutierrez runs the Latino education advocacy organization, Abriendo Puertas.
“We know through our contacts at LAUSD that close to 50 percent of Latino parents report that their child has not been in a preschool experience before entering kindergarten,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez is adamant that preschool is critical to the future prosperity of the Latino community.
“We know preschool works. It’s foundational; it’s key to future academic success,” she said. “Children who don’t have access to these high quality programs will have less access to the jobs of the future or will be making less money in the future.”
When children are not in a formal childcare program, Gutierrez said, many stay home with a parent or relative.
Ana Martin said she tried her best with her daughter Cecilia by playing with her and reading to her, but after seeing how the Head Start teachers worked with Fernando, she realized the difference made by teachers who have been trained to specifically develop early literacy, numeracy and motor skills.
However, there are some benefits of being home in the early years, said Bruce Fuller, professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the skills of Mexican American children entering kindergarten.
“We see that Latino youngsters have very strong proficiency in working with others, taking turns, taking directions from teachers, seeing the view points of other youngsters,” Fuller said. “So there is something in their socialization that gives them that kind of agility in these social situations at age 4 age five.”
Yet the lack of formal preschool also stands out, he said.
“On the other hand, they’re arriving with weaker oral language skills, they’re arriving with thinner cognitive proficiencies when it comes to solving certain puzzles, they have much less exposure to written materials like kids books," he said.
Access is not the only reason Latino youngsters might be missing out, according to Vicky Santos, vice president of operations for the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, a large childcare provider.
Santos says her staff often has to convince parents that preschool is a better option than staying home with a family member.
“Although its very convenient for them, I think its all about the educating the family, letting them know that there are services that are available for them in a center based type program where they are learning educational things versus just sitting at home being babysat.”
She said that after the once-reluctant parents see the educational growth of their child, they help spread the word to other families in the community. Which then leads back to the problem of not enough seats and long waitlists.
It's everyone's problem when Latino kids miss preschool, Santos said, because if Latino children continue to show up to kindergarten without preschool, that impacts all children’s learning.