Cynthia Lopez grew up in Huntington Park. Other than a brief sojourn to U.C. Santa Cruz for college, she has lived in Southeast Los Angeles near her family for most of her life.
Her mother cares full time for her toddler, Arianni, while Lopez is at work, passing on traditions and culture from her native Guatemala to the youngest member of the family.
But as Arianni neared 3, Lopez began to notice her toddler was getting bored with her abuela, her grandmother. Arianni needed to be around other children, Lopez decided.
“I went to preschool and I have the memories of how great it was,” Lopez said. “I want her to have the same experiences.”
Yet finding preschool in Huntington Park is not easy, she said.
“In this area, nobody puts their information online,” she said. “You have to ask neighbors, friends. You have to drive around and see what you find.”
Lopez expanded her search outside of Huntington Park.
“We’re used to having to travel,” Lopez said. “We’ve done music programs in South Pasadena. There’s nothing here for Arianni in that sense.”
Data shows Lopez is not alone in her frustrating search. A new study to be released later this fall by the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, reports that Huntington Park is among the Los Angeles County communities where parents have the hardest time finding child care. Despite years of gentrification, there are only enough child care spots for 19 percent of Huntington Park’s children under 5.
Looking only at infants and toddlers, the area doesn't even have enough space in licensed child care centers for 1 percent of the nearly 4,000 children 2 and younger who live here, according to the study.
Lopez finally found a nursery cooperative she liked and could afford 12 miles away in Silver Lake. Arianni is enrolled for three half-days per week at the Rose Scharlin Nursery. Her 15 hours weekly will cost Lopez $275 every month. Parents are also required to volunteer at the nursery one day a week. If a full-time slot opens up, Arianni can stay longer.
Lopez is resigned to the daily drive to the preschool and then to downtown Los Angeles where she works. “That’s what we have to do,” she said.
One-third of families with children in Huntington Park live in poverty, and half of all families earn less than 70 percent of the state’s median wage.
Poor neighborhoods, which may lack stores and markets for fresh food, have been described as “food deserts.” Many of these same neighborhoods suffer from a dearth of infant, toddler and preschool options, making them "child care deserts."
Kim Pattillo Brownson runs educational equity programs at the Advancement Project. When the organization's child care study is released, it will map where licensed child care centers are located, and compare that to the number of 0-5 aged children in zip code areas across L.A. County. KPCC received an advance look at the findings.
”There is access to early care and education,” Pattillo Brownson said, “but it is very uneven and not very fairly distributed.”
The report found the access imbalance falls along income lines, she said. In wealthier neighborhoods, where parents pay for private care, “there is an excess of early learning centers,” Pattillo Brownson said.
Elsewhere, “there are some places where the waitlists go on for years,” she said. These are largely areas where parents cannot afford to pay for care and rely on government subsidized child care slots.
Overall for the county, the report finds only 2 percent of infants and toddlers have access to a licensed child care center. For preschool-aged children, it is 41 percent. “That still means that almost 60 percent of preschool-aged children don’t have access to a licensed center,” Pattillo Brownson said.
The most underserved areas are in Southeast LA, neighborhoods like Cudahy, Compton, and Maywood.
“We have about 3,000 children who are between 0 to 5 and we only have about 350 spaces for them,” said Maywood Mayor Oscar Magana, who grew up in the city.
“I did go to preschool,” he said. “It’s something that I know my mum always kind of bragged about it — like, ‘Yeah, he went to preschool.’ ”
The community-organizer mayor, Magana, wants to dramatically increase access to early childhood education in Maywood. He sees way too many parents unable to work because they are looking after small children.
The mayor also worries about the kind of education small children are receiving when parents are busy looking for jobs or working odd jobs to make ends meet. “I think a lot of people are too quick to say, ‘I'm going to turn on the TV and the TV is going to supervise them,’ ” he said.
Maywood is part of L.A. Unified school district. There are four elementary schools in the area, and each has a preschool program with 18 slots for kids in the morning session and 18 in the afternoon session. One charter elementary school runs a transitional kindergarten program. Currently there is a waitlist in the hundreds among these existing public preschools.
Magana said there are many critical issues that need addressing in his community. He points to the lack of playgrounds, and contrasts this to the excess of liquor stores in the neighborhood. But his focus is squarely on expanding early education access. He has been lobbying L.A. Unified to add more preschool seats in Maywood.
“We want them to put an early education center in the new high school they are going to be building here in Maywood,” he said.
The L.A. Unified school board just agreed to increase early education spending by $34 million over the next three years. It's the single biggest investment in early education by a California school district in over a decade, according to the Advancement Project. Magana hopes that at least a portion of the new funding will end up in Maywood.