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San Francisco's universal preschool could prove a model for SoCal cities

Jennifer Delos Reyes is the program director for Holy Family Day Home, a preschool in San Francisco that has been able to serve 50 percent more children after the city implemented universal preschool.
Jennifer Delos Reyes is the program director for Holy Family Day Home, a preschool in San Francisco that has been able to serve 50 percent more children after the city implemented universal preschool.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

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When San Francisco voters overwhelmingly reauthorized the city's universal preschool program on Tuesday, ensuring an annual $27 million for the next 24 years, other California cities may well have sat up.

The Obama administration's call for universal preschool has cities nationwide thinking about how to implement such programs. New York's mayor swept in a pilot project this year that offers preschool to four-year-olds and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia wants to do the same.

But a model for funding and implementing a global program for preschool may be just up the I-5. 

A group of community organizers in San Francisco began discussing the idea of a public fund dedicated to small children’s needs in 1987. It was the precursor to the city's passage of universal preschool and decades ahead of what today is a national movement. 

The city has gone about its Preschool For All program quietly, largely overlooked in the national discussion about how cities are developing universal programs for early learners. 

Over 10 years, San Francisco has funded preschool education for 25,000 children. It has implemented high quality standards in all preschool classrooms, and funds additional services like play therapists and teacher support services.

This year, 4,000 preschoolers across 150 school sites are beneficiaries. There are about 400 four-year-olds still on the city's waiting list.

Importantly, the children served have been from all socio-economic groups, according to Ingrid Mezquita, Preschool For All program director at First 5 San Francisco, the organization charged with administering the program. 

“In the [higher] grades, we don’t segregate children by income. In preschool, we do,” Mezquita said. “In a universal system, that opens up all families to be under one roof.”

San Francisco's not a pure universal system. While the funding covers 100 percent of the tuition for low-income children, middle and upper-income families can receive up to 25 percent of their costs from the city’s general fund. They are able to apply to any of the city’s Preschool For All-approved preschools.

Mezquita says her office has plenty of anecdotal evidence that the program has stopped "family flight" — families with small children leaving the expensive Bay Area because they can’t afford childcare.

“San Francisco has the highest rents,” she said, forcing some families to choose between paying rent or sending their children to preschool. For some middle-income families, Mezquita said, they make too much for free preschool, but not enough to afford privates rates.

“San Francisco has been able to help a lot of moderate-income families not have to make that choice so [they] can stay in the city,” Mezquita said.

Jennifer Delos Reyes knows that dilemma well. Her husband grew up in San Francisco and they wanted to raise their young daughter there, too. Both have good jobs, she said, but with the high cost of San Francisco living, preschool seemed out of reach.

“One of the ways that we are able to afford to stay is though Preschool For All. We get 25 percent off at her school, and it really is a big break for us,” she said.

On average, private preschool costs about $1,350 per month in the city, according to First 5 San Francisco. The savings of up to 25 percent can help bring the cost down to under $1,000 per month. There are also half-day options open to all families, regardless of income, that are offered for free.

Delos Reyes runs programs for another San Francisco preschool, Holy Family Day Home. She said she sees closeup the benefits of having children of mixed incomes in the same classrooms. One example: children learn empathy through the school's monthly collective birthday celebrations. Instead of some children bringing in expensive cakes to celebrate, kids bake cupcakes at school once a month to celebrate all the birthdays for the month. 

Holy Family has been providing childcare for 100 years. In the 10 years since the city’s universal preschool began, the school has increased slots for children by 50 percent and serves 154 kids.  A majority of the children are low-income and fully subsidized, but the preschool ensures at least a quarter of all students are from higher-income homes.

“Just because a family of four is making $100,000 a year doesn’t mean they aren’t in need of assistance and don’t deserve a quality preschool program,” Delos Reyes said.

“If we didn’t have Preschool For All, we would be serving the very poor and the very rich,” she added. “PFA gives access to everyone.”

The Preschool For All program also funded Holy Family to hire a play-therapist to help children exhibiting behavioral issues, as well as a “therapeutic shadow teacher” who could be at the school 30 hours a week to help teachers in the classroom.

These extra services get to the heart of “quality” early education, said Carla Bryant, chief of early education for the San Francisco Unified School District.

“When Preschool For All started they were very clear that they were looking for very high quality preschools,” Bryant said. Even though the school district remains the largest provider of preschool in San Francisco, Bryant said Preschool for All helped lift quality in the district's classrooms.

“Preschool For All was able to look at some of the work that was being done nationally and borrow some of it, and actually move it quite quickly,” Bryant said. “So they absolutely set a bar and ensured that anyone who was PFA met that bar.”

A long struggle to get there

As other cities attempt to push through universal preschool, knowing the path that organizers took in San Francisco might prove useful, said Mezquita of First 5 San Francisco.

“It took a lot of training to get even people in the field to understand how outrageous it was that it wasn’t just automatic that our children had the best possible beginning in life,” said Margaret Brodkin, a community organizer and former head of the city Department of Children, Youth and Their Families.

“People are not used to thinking of it as a social justice issue and that’s what I think we’ve done so remarkably in San Francisco.”

She said it took years of grassroots organizing to convince people of the need to fund services and preschool for all children.

“It doesn’t come naturally to people who work in preschool who are gentle people to get involved in politics and learn to play political hardball,” Brodkin said. “But that is what you have to do if you want to have a universal preschool measure pass in your community.”

They didn’t start out demanding universal preschool. Instead the organizers took on smaller battles with targeted demands.

“We had baby brigades at City Hall year after year where hundreds and hundreds of kids from child care centers would invade City Hall and extract promises from elected officials,” she said.  

“We were at every budget hearing, we had the parents of people in childcare centers send 10,000 postcards to the mayor when we needed to get salaries raised for childcare workers.”

From 1987 to 1991 children’s advocates, led by Brodkin, pushed for a “children’s budget.” That work culminated in the passage of a children’s fund in 1991 with a $6 million pot of money. 

In 2004, San Francisco voters approved 10 years' of funding to start a universal preschool program, and in the recent election, voters approved the 24-year reauthorization.

That makes Brodkin smile. But she’s not pausing too long to enjoy the victory. She’s busy traveling up and down the state advising advocates in small cities on how to bring about similar preschool funding streams to their own towns.