As part of Superintendent Cindy Marten’s mission to close the achievement gap by the end of first grade, she wants to double down on programs for preschool-aged children.

It’s a gutsy goal, swaddled in good will, but the proposal hinges on two important beliefs: that a gap exists by first grade, and that programs like preschool could help close it — two notions critics don’t accept at face value.

While Marten hasn’t broadcast her ultimate goal — she wants every child in San Diego to have access to free preschool — she hasn’t made it a secret, either.

In many ways, the timing is right to make such a shift. From Washington D.C.  to New York City, the drumbeats for pre-K are growing louder.

But if Marten wants to persuade San Diego that expanded preschool is a sound investment, she must first make the case that it’s even feasible — no easy feat in a district facing a $75 million deficit.

Marten and the school board haven’t yet hung a price tag on their proposed strategies for closing the achievement gap — expanded early-childhood education programs, extra help for long-term English learners and interventions to keep high school students on track to graduate.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The district has planned, however, to make up for some of its budget shortfall by cutting central office positions and selling off more of its properties.

Marten doesn’t have a lot of money to play with at the moment, but said that she wants to put a “stake in the ground” by incentivizing preschool and allocating more money to schools that plan to expand.

Momentum will be generated, Marten recently said, when San Diego Unified sees itself as a preschool-to-12th grade district, instead of a kindergarten-to-12th-grade district.

“Pre-school has always been seen as a stepchild in the district,” Marten told VOSD. “We can change that, but we need to invest. We don’t need to spend a billion dollars; we just need to be smarter about the way we spend.”

An Old Fight

Preschool as a means to equity isn’t a new idea. In fact, former President Lyndon Johnson trumpeted early childhood education as a way to short-circuit the road to poverty. But if preschool is nothing new — neither is the debate over its effectiveness.

Critics have questioned the value of Head Start — a federal program for children from low-income families — often citing a study by the Department of Health and Human Services that showed the program’s benefits largely dissipated by the third grade.

Head Start defenders contend holes exist in the study and say Head Start’s debatable benefits don’t invalidate the value of high-quality preschools.

Tad Parzen, executive director of the City Heights Partnership for Children, said the criticism cloaks a deeper issue: “They’re really not criticizing Head Start. They’re criticizing spending money on Head Start when what we do after that seems to not maintain the gains kids make early on.”

There isn’t much data specific to San Diego Unified that suggests a gap exists by first grade, but a recent study by Stanford professor Anne Fernald found that children from low-income families enter school with fewer language skills than their more privileged peers. A gap is noticeable by the time children are 18-months-old, the research showed.

Fernald said the number of words children hear, and variation of parents’ vocabulary, can impact language acquisition and reading comprehension.

In San Diego Unified, results from the 2013 California Standards Test showed that over 50 percent of black and Hispanic second graders, respectively, tested below proficient in Language Arts. Compare that with 23 percent of white students.

A ‘Byzantine’ System

The biggest conflict for pre-K expansion might be more practical than philosophical.

Roughly 3,600 children attend early education programs in San Diego Unified. The estimated funding for this school year ­— $25.2 million — will come from various pots of money, such as the California Department of Education and Head Start.

Pre-K funding is structured for low-income families and is based on strict income requirements. Parents hoping to enroll their children have a lot of proving to do, and have to navigate a system Parzen calls “byzantine.”

Robin McCulloch, director of the district’s Early Childhood Education program, said “the (pre-K) paperwork is heinous. That’s not by our design; it’s just the way it is.”

This could mean that parents, many of whom might not have much education or experience navigating bureaucratic red tape, have to track down paperwork like proof of income or children’s immunization records — sometimes while working three jobs, McCulloch said.

Alleviating the problem might mean including more staff members to help parents sort through the rigmarole of registration, or it could be as straightforward as streamlining the application process.

The result of the system that’s in place is empty preschool seats – even though there’s a list of interested parents who want to enroll their children.

McCulloch said pre-K is as much of an education for the parents as it is for the students.

“(Some) parents, not because of choice or moral flaw, didn’t go to school beyond the second grade. They want to help their children, but they just don’t know how” she said. “We are filling those gaps.”

Community Fabric

Patricia Gándara, a research professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, doesn’t doubt that disparities exist for young children, or that early childhood education can offer benefits.

She does, however, question whether early childhood education can help close the gap.

“These achievement gaps that show up very early are obviously not the result of schooling,” Gándara said. “They’re the results of other factors starting at birth.”

If you want to close the gaps in education, which parallel parents’ socioeconomic status, “You need to change the conditions in which young children are being raised,” she said.

This might mean recruiting advocates who could help carry information to parents who fall through the cracks.

Parzen agrees, and sees a need for services at the grassroots, neighborhood level. But, he said, the amount of help a family with preschool aged children can get comes down to the degree to which the school system makes it a priority — and whether the community is satisfied with the status quo.

“I don’t know who could look you in the eye and deny that some kids show up more ready for kindergarten than others,” Parzen said. “It’s delusional, destructive and divisive to turn a blind eye to it. And it undermines the fabric of our community.”

    This article relates to: Achievement Gap, Education, News, School Finances, School Leadership, School Performance, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Another issue is socialization. When children have had a good pre-school experience or a home experience that includes lots of interaction with children of their own age, their maturity/confidence level allows them to be open to the kindergarten environment.  The kindergarten environment today requires that children be able to listen for lengthy periods of time and absorb quickly the information elicited by the teacher(s).  To observe the difference all anyone needs to do is observe what happens on the first day of Kindergarten. Children that are ready confidently wave mommy and daddy good-bye.  While those that have not been socialized cling to mommy or daddy and are fearful of their experience. Often,these same children don't begin to socialize until mid-year. By that time, those that have not socialized have lost as much as half a year in essential academics and enter 1st grade not ready academically. And, this follows them throughout their primary school experience, unless they receive an intensive tutoring program to catch up.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    The question is not for universal pre-k, but mandatory Kindergarten. And, then universal pre-k. There are parents that still don't know that a child needs to read, write, add, and subtract by the end of Kindergarten. And, now, the Common Core will demand even more and higher level instruction in Kindergarten. What has been happening over the last 40 years is that most of the education, before the onset of formal school begins, has not been taken up by "the home", whatever that may be. So, education has been the purview of hired educators to push children ahead. And that is not a very easy job when many parents remain clueless about the process. The added "wild card" are the second language learners. It is very, very difficult to get second language learners to produce "at grade level" without sufficient phonemic awareness IN ANY LANGUAGE. Second language learners are very intelligent, but must be brought "along" on a different matrix than children whose primary language is English; that just basic.

    David Molnar
    David Molnar subscriber

    And when it turns out that some kids are better prepared for pre-school than others, what will we do? 

    The problem solution lies in a new and vigorous emphasis on the responsibility of parents in the early education of their children, of their responsibility to make sure the children are fluent in the primary language of their country before they enter school, of the responsibility of parents to make sure their kids are warm, well fed, well clothed. And maybe we should remind parents not to bring kids into the world and expect somebody else to provide for them.

    Maybe the answer is that people don't have kids unless they know how to and are willing to take care of them.

    Get out your pens and call me racist or whatever names you want.  But anybody who thinks that there are not people who should never have children have their rose colored glasses on.

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    @David Molnar  Interesting point, David. What do you think should be done to ensure that parents don't have kids until they know how to take care of them?

    Leah Placido Dutra
    Leah Placido Dutra subscriber

    I am a child development teacher. The most conclusive research about education shows that the level attained by parents greatly impacts how the child performs. I believe that the most efficient use of funding would be to ensure that all parents who seek higher education have access to quality child care that enables them to move forward with their own education. Requiring child development be taught in high school, to the future parents and care takers of young children, would also have more impact than universal preschool. The excessive micromanagement and bureaucracy that has infiltrated the child development field over the course of the ten years I have been a part of the profession is only likely to become a greater issue in a system with universal preschool. What does it matter if we improve the education of young children if only to send them into a broken elementary/high school system? My own son, who went to 2 years of preschool, private elementary, and then to public high school where he was a B+ student and took AP courses (passing 2/3 AP exams), could not pass the math assessment at a UC and had to repeat 2 levels of math, adding thousands to his loans. He tested above national average in math in private junior high, only to lose ground at public high school. Fix the failures in the system we already have now, before we create new ones.

    David Molnar
    David Molnar subscriber

    @Leah Placido Dutra That's such an interesting observation.  I wonder how it is that in the past so many children of parents with little or no education managed to get college degrees.  My own father, first generation American, 2nd grade education, my mother, first generation American, 8th grade education raised four kids that between them got one PhD, two Masters degrees, and four Bachelor of Science degrees.

    We had no preschool, no affirmative action, no special English language learner programs....funny, isn't it?

    Leah Placido Dutra
    Leah Placido Dutra subscriber

    @David Molnar @Leah Placido DutraIt is not an observation, it is research data. Educated parents have better performing kids. You had great parents, obviously. Some of us are stuck with heroin addicts and drunks. I am now working on my masters, but I am well aware I am a statistical anomaly. If you look at the numbers, half of college students are first generation, but less than 30% graduate in 5 years, much less than kids whose parents went to college. Helping young parents get educated improves the chances their kids will graduate from college. I think it is money better spent than on preschool for all. It is one of the rare instances I believe in government subsidies, because it requires personal responsibility and hard work to access it and it will impact numerous generations.