East San Jose school nets millions from state
Cesar Chavez Elementary School became an early learning center earlier this year. It started enrolling students this past August. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    An East San Jose school is receiving millions in state funding for early learning education, which officials say will provide crucial support for students, especially those from communities of color.

    The Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center is getting $7 million through the California Department of Education’s State Preschool program. The Alum Rock Union School District site will use funding to expand early care and education programs, officials said.

    Alum Rock’s school board voted earlier this year to turn Cesar Chavez Elementary School into an early learning center. The decision, initially opposed by parents, aimed to provide child care and education for the district’s low-income families. Investment in early learning is also ramping up at the state level with universal transitional kindergarten, which Alum Rock officials said has significantly improved language development skills, reducing the district’s population of English language learners over the years.

    The funding is crucial for a district that serves a predominantly low-income, minority population, said Dianna Ballesteros, the district’s director of early learning.

    “Our families here, they really carry the economy. These are working families,” Ballesteros told San José Spotlight. “We’re very excited that the California Department of Education trusts the vision of Alum Rock (Union) School District in early learning.”

    More than 120 students are enrolled at the learning center for transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and special education classes. SOMOS Mayfair, an East San Jose nonprofit, runs a resource center on-site that provides resources and is part of the center’s efforts to connect community-based organizations to families. Waitlists are already filling up, especially for the center’s infant and toddler care programs, Ballesteros said.

    The district plans to use funding to expand preschool services to nine hours a day, said Superintendent Hilaria Bauer.

    “We envision a state-of-the-art Early Learning Center that will house several hundred students by the time we finish,” Bauer told San José Spotlight.

    Supplying free and accessible child care is essential for the East San Jose community, said Scott Moore, CEO of Kidango. The education nonprofit is the learning center’s main partner in providing preschool and other services, and worked with the district to secure funding from the state.

    “To be able to offer free child care starting at birth, (it’s) child care that enables parents to go to work,” Moore told San José Spotlight. “This is going to be a campus that we hope is a model for the rest of the state.”

    Dual immersion programs are also a critical component, bolstering language learning in diverse communities where students speak a language other than English at home.

    “It’s a new kind of public school,” Moore told San José Spotlight. “Instead of starting at the age of five, we start at birth. Instead of only operating until (3 p.m.), stopping during the summer, we provide services for the day and for the full year.”

    Investing in early education means building a foundation for future academic years, said Minh Pham, a school board member in the district. Programs at the center enable learning disabilities to be diagnosed early on, and also allow students to bridge the readiness gap before entering later grades.

    “Preschool and good child care is an important foundation for kids going into kindergarten and through to first grade,” Pham told San José Spotlight. “This is a place where the community can come together and give our kids a solid early education that prepares them for success later.”

    Having the funds to expand the Cesar Chavez Early Learning Center means historically underinvested communities like East San Jose can create change for future generations, Ballesteros said.

    “It’s a huge systemic change,” she told San José Spotlight. “It’s really important that our families in our community have a place where they can feel comfortable and confident that their children are being cared for.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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