Dewan: Early care and education is key to our recovery
Members of Leland High School's 4K dance team practice their moves. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a troubling impact on children and their families. As workplaces and schools resume in-person operations, it is key that we keep our youngest learners and their families top of mind.

Early care and education are foundational to the long-term health, education and wellbeing of children. Quality childcare, preschool, transitional kindergarten (TK) and kindergarten programs provide proven and significant benefits for children and families.

Infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families need different programs and services. Addressing gaps in access and achievement before they start is sound policy. Services including home visits to expectant parents, early developmental screenings, expanded childcare, parent and workforce training and paid family leave are essential components to a quality,  comprehensive system of early care, health and education.

Decades of research demonstrate that language, social, emotional and physical development improve when children participate in and regularly attend quality programs in their first five  years of life. Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops by age five. Children engaged in quality care and preschool are much more likely to enter school ready to learn, stay in school and graduate on time.

Yet, most children in Santa Clara County do not have access to affordable, quality childcare and preschool. With the recent state budget, California is signaling to schools and communities across the state that the time is right to expand early care and education. California legislators recently approved increased investments in TK to provide universal access for all four-year-olds, regardless of family income by the 2025-26 school year. For the 2021-22 school year, 8,700 new full-day preschool spaces and 120,000 new childcare spaces will also be added across the state.

A study led by the Santa Clara County Office of Education showed that facilities are one of the leading barriers to childcare and preschool expansion and the lack of inclusive playgrounds has a further negative and limiting impact. The state recognizes this barrier and allocated funds to build new, or modify existing, facilities for the purpose of expanding public school operated  preschool, TK and full-day kindergarten classes.

However, that state investment will barely make a dent in the facility infrastructure needs in Santa Clara County. There is an opportunity now to strengthen and expand partnerships and develop projects for early learning facilities across the county.

The shortage of quality early learning environments affects the workforce and is part of the affordability crisis in our county. Every major city in our county has an unmet need for infant and toddler care.

A Brookings Institution report noted that fewer than half of low-income children are kindergarten-ready and many never receive consistent services and supports to reach the achievement levels of their peers. A quarter of middle- and upper-class children are not kindergarten-ready.

Readiness for kindergarten is important for every family.

The “Steps to Success” campaign seeks to increase enrollment, promote regular attendance in early learning programs and engage children and their families in safe, equitable, inclusive high-quality early childhood experiences. Families can find information about available childcare, preschool, transitional kindergarten and kindergarten at www.enrollsantaclara.org.

Children who turn five between Sept. 2, 2021 and Dec. 2, 2021 can enroll in transitional kindergarten. Children who turn five between Dec. 3, 2020 and Sept. 1, 2021 should enroll in kindergarten. The new school year is fast approaching. Enrolling our children is an important step to take now and is key to our recovery.

San José Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan is the superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. She has more than 33 years of experience in the field of education. Her columns appear every third Monday of the month.

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