By Rachel Tennenbaum

As graduation nears, many twenty-something college students are facing the end of their educational careers. As they try to get ahead in the world, they are plagued by the competition to get a job or get into graduate school. But what if getting a leg up in life could happen before age five?

California has begun to make sure that children are getting that extra boost. In late April, the state of California invested $50 million into State Assembly Bill 172 (AB172) toward the development of state-run preschools.

The Pajaro Valley School District and Head Start, a federally funded program, were awarded $1.2 million of the AB172 money. The two groups will split the grant equally and use it to open state-run preschools in low-performing areas.

Currently, there are no public preschool programs offered. If parents want their child to receive education before kindergarten, they must either place their child in a preschool that is private or federally funded. Private preschools are expensive, and federal programs can have strict requirements. For example, Head Start only serves parents whose economic class is at poverty level. The state preschools now offer a more widely accessible solution.

“The nice part about the state preschools is that the income eligibility is higher, so you can reach more parents,” Cynthia Wells said. Wells works for the Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center, which will oversee Head Start’s state-run preschools. She explained that Head Start plans to open eight classrooms with 20 kids each, in conjunction with Starlite and Mintie White schools.

There is more and more research coming to the surface that demonstrates a child’s need for preschool. Rand Corp. conducted a study on the importance of preschools and came up with some shocking statistics. According to the study, “For every class year California provides preschool to all, there will be 13,800 fewer repeated grades, 9,116 fewer kids in special education, 10,000 more high school graduates, and an additional $2.7 billion contributed to the [Californian] economy.”

“We want to address issues — what kids need — at the beginning of their education,” Wells said. “By the time you get to high school, it’s too late.”

She added that there is a remarkable difference between kindergarteners who have attended preschool and those who have not.

AB172 addresses schools that have preformed poorly on the Academic Performance Index (API), ensuring that the areas needing child enrichment, often working-class neighborhoods, will receive it.

And it’s just in time.

“Until this year, it’s been between eight and 10 years since new state funding came to Santa Cruz County,” said Hiranya Brewer, coordinator of Santa Cruz County Child Care Planning Council. While Brewer is happy about the grant funding, she added that there are other schools that need attention as well.

“A four [scoring] on the API is just little bit higher than a three. It really indicates that there are issues that need to be addressed,” Brewer said. “We hope to see eights, nines, and tens across the board.”

With the importance of a child’s early enrichment recognized nationally, will there be a movement toward universal preschool any time soon? Not yet, says Superintendent of Santa Cruz County Schools Michael Watkins.

“I wish we were moving towards universal preschools,” Watkins said. He emphasized, however, the importance of preschools from a social standpoint. Those students who suffered from a lack of universal preschool, he explained, are usually children who come from low-income families. By not offering such an important resource at an early age, these children will automatically be at a disadvantage, hindering diversity in the long run.

Watkins concluded, “Those opportunities will be squandered if we don’t take care of that at an early age.”