Fresno Unified still has more than 420 unfilled preschool seats — about 15% of its total — even though the district has made a major financial investment to expand its early education program and hyped it heavily over the last year.
The district pumped an extra $7.4 million into pre-kindergarten using Proposition 30 dollars last year, adding 18 new teachers and about 1,000 seats to preschool classes in 59 schools.
But while there is an obvious need for more space — there were enough free preschool seats last year for only 42% of the district's eligible kids — district officials say getting kids into those seats hasn't been easy.
In some cases, it's simply a matter of alerting parents about the extra classroom space, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said.
But language and education barriers in some parts of the city make it tough to reach every parent, Hanson said. That's especially true, he said, among parents who didn't attend preschool or graduate from high school.
"It's just very hard work to communicate and reach folks who are not necessarily looking for the message," he said. "We don't always know where they are."
Hanson said the district advertised the preschool seats through Spanish and Hmong radio, at an enrollment fair last spring and through the district's Adult School and Parent University.
Kendra Rogers, executive director of First 5 Fresno County, a county commission aimed at improving the lives of young children, said the district also faces the challenge of breaking down misconceptions about preschool.
Some parents think it's the same as day care, she said, which makes it seem optional instead of a necessary introduction to primary school. Other parents erroneously believe they need to pay for programs like Head Start, which is free.
"What we've seen countywide is first and foremost, parents don't know that they would qualify," she said. "It's making sure there's awareness about the availability of subsidized slots."
The Prop. 30-funded preschool seats have been especially important this year, said Sareen Bedoyan, marketing and communications coordinator at Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission.
The county's Head Start program, which is administered through Fresno EOC, had to cut 76 preschool seats — a total of $1.5 million — because of federal budget cuts due to sequestration.
The reduction forced Fresno EOC to close the Head Start site in Cantua Creek this year, she said.
While other California school districts used Prop. 30 dollars to plug budget holes, Fresno Unified chief financial officer Ruth Quinto said the district didn't count on getting extra money for last year's budget. That meant the district had more money to spend on preschool, among other things, when voters approved the measure.
The additional preschool seats filled immediately at some Fresno Unified schools.
Greenberg Elementary teacher Susan Collins, a 15-year veteran of Fresno Unified, said she was happily surprised to see her morning preschool class was at capacity on the first day of school in August.
"For the first time ever we started with a full 20 (students)," she said. "I think the main reason was that we had the big push just before school let out."
But it's unclear how many classrooms were like Collins'. The Bee made several requests for early enrollment figures, which could help illustrate how many families knew about the extra slots.
But district spokeswoman Jamilah Fraser said classrooms still are "leveling" — evening out the number of students in each class — and she said preliminary enrollment numbers won't be available until late September.
Also, enrollment numbers on the first day of school are routinely lower than after a few weeks of class, Quinto said. Some families take extended summer vacations, she said, to visit relatives in Mexico and other countries. After they get back, seats begin to fill up.
Even with the expansion, some teachers worry there still aren't enough preschool seats in certain communities.
Ellen Chang is the only preschool teacher at Storey Elementary School in southeast Fresno. She teaches both morning and afternoon preschool, with 21 students in one section and 18 in the other.
But there's a long waiting list at Storey, she said, partly because a neighboring elementary school, Ayer, doesn't offer pre-kindergarten.
"I don't know how they will go about adding more classes," she said. "I know the school down the street, they don't have pre-kindergarten, so some of those students are coming to our classroom."
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