This article is part of a series about First 5 — a tobacco tax initiative in California passed by voters 20 years ago to fund services for young children, from birth to kindergarten age. The series is supported by a University of Southern California 2018 Center for Health Journalism fellowship.

The Cloverdale Unified School District (CUSD) isn’t like many of the other districts in Sonoma County. A freeway runs through the middle of town, it doesn’t have a concentration of wineries and tasting rooms, and in past years, most children entering kindergarten didn’t have much experience in preschool.

That last point, however, might not have caught CUSD Superintendent Jeremy Decker’s attention if not for the county’s Road to Early Achievement and Development for Youth (READY) program, which uses a kindergarten readiness assessment to gather information about children’s home language, preschool participation, social-emotional development and “school-ready knowledge.”

Funded by First 5 Sonoma County — one of 58 county agencies created by a 1998 voter-approved tobacco tax to improve health, well-being and learning outcomes for young children — the READY initiative also focuses on helping teachers use the data from the readiness assessments and strengthening connections between K-12 and early learning providers.

“I’m a secondary guy. I never really understood the importance of kindergarten or preschool,” Decker said in an interview. “My superintendent lens was absolutely about graduation. Through First 5, I learned exactly where our shortcomings were.”

While the district offered a small fee-based preschool program, most Cloverdale families that could afford preschool would drive to the more populated community of Healdsburg. Children without such opportunities missed out.

But when Decker saw the data, he worked with a child-care agency to add preschool slots for low-income families. With about 100 children per grade level in the district, there are now almost enough spaces for every child who needs one.

The district also developed a two-week summer transition program for incoming kindergartners who still weren’t attending preschool. And after just one year, it saw a 100% increase in the number of children considered ready for kindergarten.

“When they start on the first day [of kindergarten], they’re not crying. It’s not a shock,” Decker said, adding that now he understands the connection between preschool and third-grade reading performance, or the credits students need for admission to a University of California institution. “It will affect those metrics that we look at.”

The push for preschool

In the early years after the ballot initiative passed, both the statewide and some local First 5 commissions placed a major emphasis on directly funding preschool programs. Between 2005 and 2011, for example, the state-level commission — First 5 California — spent almost $130 million on the Power of Preschool, a demonstration program in eight counties.

And before that, actor/filmmaker Rob Reiner, the architect of the ballot measure 20 years ago, pressed First 5 Los Angeles to dedicate $100 million over a five-year period to expand early-learning programs for children throughout the county.

“This is exactly what Prop. 10 was designed to do,” Reiner told the First 5 commissioners in Los Angeles in 2002. “This is a historic day for the children, not only of L.A. County, but of the country. This is going to be the model.”

In 2004, First 5 L.A. created Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) as a separate organization. And between then and 2016, LAUP served 130,000 children in more than 800 preschools across the county.

Reiner returned to California voters in 2006 with Proposition 82, which would have created a universal pre-K program, in both public and private centers, to be administered by the state education department and county school superintendents. The measure would have created a 1.7 percent tax on individuals earning at least $400,000 and couples with a combined income of $800,000. But it was defeated, 61 percent to 39 percent.

Now, the early-childhood community is waiting to see how Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom’s campaign talk about universal preschool and services for infants and toddlers translates into a policy agenda.

“Too many children are growing up in poverty and starting school from behind,“ Newsom, who oversaw the implementation of a universal preschool program as mayor of San Francisco, said Nov. 6 during his victory speech.

Preschool access varies across the state

According to the annual State of Preschool Yearbooks from the National Institute for Early Education Research, California’s income-based State Preschool Program serves 37 percent of 4-year-olds and 11 percent of 3-year-olds, which is higher than the national averages of 33 percent and 5 percent for state-funded programs. The 37 percent includes children served in the state’s transitional kindergarten (TK) classrooms, but it doesn’t include those in any First 5-funded programs.

Children Now’s interactive “scorecard” shows preschool access by county. (Credit: Children Now)

Enrollment in a center-based preschool, however, varies tremendously at the county level, depending on the availability of programs and whether the hours accommodate parents’ work schedules. In 2016, the American Institutes for Research calculated the “unmet need” for preschool among children eligible for state-funded programs — more than 33,000 4-year-olds and more than 137,000 3-year-olds were not enrolled.

Counties with the highest number of eligible children without access were concentrated in Southern California — such as Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside. And counties with high percentages of eligible children not enrolled included Sacramento, Ventura, Orange and Tulare.

More recently, data from Children Now, an advocacy organization, shows the percentages of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool or TK, regardless of family income level. San Francisco County has the highest rate at 70 percent, followed by other Bay Area counties. Los Angeles ranked sixth with 54 percent.

Forming ‘partnerships with purpose’

With revenues from California’s tobacco tax declining, First 5 agencies are far less able to address some of the need for preschool slots, a reality that is more pronounced for First 5 Los Angeles because it put the most money into preschool — almost $530 million for slots and quality improvement efforts over that 12-year period. In 2016, the agency stopped funding LAUP, which changed its name to Child360 and is providing coaching, professional development and other quality improvement services.

First 5 Amador has long funded a summer transition program to help children get ready for kindergarten. The program has grown from about 16 to more than 100 children — over a third of the incoming kindergarten class. Executive Director Nina Machado tries to always hire kindergarten teachers and a pre-K teaching assistants so they can learn from each other. (Credit: First 5 Amador)

“We needed to right our fiscal ship,” Kim Belshé, executive director of First 5 Los Angeles, said in an interview. “Our board said we have to emphasize policy and systems change. We need to move more upstream in terms of prevention, and we need to lead with partnership — and partnerships with purpose.”

While some county-level First 5s still fund preschool, the emphasis for many has shifted toward other efforts that improve children’s readiness for school, such as health screenings, fostering communication between early-childhood programs and schools, and developing the type of assessments that spurred superintendent Decker to expand his district’s preschool program.

In fact, finding agreement on an instrument such as a kindergarten readiness assessment — when the topic of assessment in early childhood has long been controversial anyway — would likely be difficult for a state as complex as California. But “First 5s have been plugging away” in supporting the use of such instruments at the local level, Erin Gabel, the deputy director of external and governmental affairs for First 5 California, said in an interview.

In San Mateo County, for example, the Bridges to Success program focused on creating relationships between feeder preschools and school districts across the county. Christine Thorsteinson, the early learning manager with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Center for Early Learning — whose position is largely funded by First 5 San Mateo — encouraged preschool providers to complete transition forms about the children leaving their programs.

Parents gave preschool teachers permission to share the information with schools, and it wasn’t long before teachers were depending on the forms to create their class lists and learn about the children entering their classrooms.

“The funding from First 5 was critical in order to make something like that work,” Thorsteinson said in an interview.

The project also included joint professional development for preschool and kindergarten teachers — a practice that experts say helps to connect what children are learning across the early years and can reduce the chances that gains made in preschool will fade, according to a recent Education Commission of the States report on transition.

Understanding ‘where kids were’

Thorsteinson’s work to link preschool and elementary teachers has now “morphed,” she said, into the Center for Early Learning Leadership Academy, designed for principals and other administrators from districts in the Bay Area. From her past work with schools, Thorsteinson learned that it was important to have principals involved.

“Early learning is not part of their training unless they came to it with some early learning background,” she said. “We knew that it was going to be really important for them to appreciate and understand what was going on in those early years.”

In fact, according to think tank New America’s scan of policies in 50 states, only nine of them “explicitly require principal preparation programs to offer coursework in early learning and/or child development.”

With the growth of TK across the state, in which districts can receive state funding for enrolling children who turn five after the kindergarten cutoff date, principals are increasingly being expected to understand research on early learning and how instruction in a TK classroom might look different than in kindergarten.

“I think we’re starting to think about where kids were before they were here,” Sarah Neidhart, principal at Panorama School in Daly City, said in an interview. Her school is participating in an additional Silicon Valley Community Foundation “Close the Gap” initiative, funded by First 5 San Mateo. The effort includes joint professional learning sessions for preschool and early grade teachers in the Bayshore, Brisbane and Pacifica school districts.

Preschool and elementary teachers participate in a joint professional development session focusing on hands-on science. (Credit: Brisbane School District)

“They get to see what we teach,” Neidhart said, adding that the preschool teachers expressed “their concerns and their desire to be more a part of the school.”

In Orange County, the Children & Families Commission (First 5), has long funded an early learning specialist in each of the county’s 25 school districts. The specialists might provide readiness information to local preschools, make sure families know when and how to enroll, coordinate joint professional development for preschool and kindergarten teachers, and oversee referrals for children to other services, such as speech and language support or a psychologist.

“Now it has become embedded in the district,” Executive Director Kim Goll said in an interview. “We still pay, but it’s more of a shared cost. It might now be a whole team of people and we augment that budget.”

And in Los Angeles County, First 5 L.A. is increasingly partnering with school districts to encourage the use of the Early Development Instrument (EDI), a questionnaire that kindergarten teachers use to measure children’s skills in five areas. Through formal partnerships, First 5 L.A. is funding the use of the EDI in several school districts — including the Los Angeles Unified School District — with the expectation that education leaders use the information to identify areas of need among young children, make decisions about how to use state funds and advocate for more public funding.

“It’s a terrific conversation starter with school districts, with parents, with community organizations and early learning leaders to identify where are the gaps, who needs to be involved and what are strategies to move forward.” ​Belshé said.

Gaps in data

California’s district and school leaders value the relationships they’ve formed with early-childhood education providers, and readiness assessments help parents and teachers better understand a child’s strengths and needs when entering kindergarten. But First 5 leaders argue that another important connection has yet to be made — the one that links child-level data to the state’s K-12 student data system.

“We have no longitudinal information about our early-learning system, which is one of the largest in the country, or information about the children we have served over a 75-year history,” Gabel said during a California Senate Select Committee on Student Success hearing in August.

With Newsom taking office, Gabel and other early-childhood advocates are hoping they’ll now have an administration that is more receptive to the idea of incorporating early-childhood data into the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) so officials and researchers can better track the long-term impact of First 5 and other early-childhood programs.

Experts often point to Pennsylvania’s Early Learning Network as an example of how to connect data from multiple early-childhood programs to the K-12 system. With participation from the state’s Department of Human Services and the Office of Child Development and Early Learning, the system creates unique identifiers for both children and early-childhood education professionals, allowing users to view information on child enrollment, learning outcomes and staff members’ qualifications.

First 5 agencies in two counties — Santa Clara and San Diego — are participating in a pilot in which the checkbox in CALPADS for preschoolers with disabilities, which school districts already serve under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is being “repurposed” to create unique student identifiers for children in community-based preschool programs, Gabel explains. Orange County’s early learning specialists are doing similar work.

Because of the pilot, researchers will be able to “analyze and illuminate the pre-kindergarten experiences of kids and downstream benefits as they move through elementary school,” according to a report from the University of California, Berkeley on the Santa Clara pilot, shared by email.

The data-matching process, however, is “labor-intensive” and will require ongoing technical assistance, particularly for preschool providers that are unfamiliar with such a system, the report states.

“A mindset shift is recommended to understand how all of these data can inform planning discussions — what facets of quality pay off for kids, what levels of part-day or full-day ‘dosage’ yield particular kinds of benefits, and how pre-k efforts overall yield solid results, as pre-k graduates move through elementary school,” the report authors wrote.

At the August state Senate hearing, Sen. Steven Glazer, chair of the Select Committee on Student Success, said linking preschool and K-12 data would help lawmakers decide where to spend limited state funds.

“We have this debate every budget year over how much money can we afford to put into early-childhood education,” he said. “That data really would inform these more difficult choices.”

This story was first published by Education Dive.