Communities in need of preschools

Paloma sucks on her pacifier at the Sandbox Early Childhood Center in Tucson.
Paloma sucks on her pacifier at the Sandbox Early Childhood Center in Tucson. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News

Children in rural and poor communities face a shortage of preschools due to underfunding and lack of access. Yet research has shown that children who come from these communities benefit the most from early education programs.

“Kids who grow up in poverty tend to have a lower vocabulary and fewer experiences to be socialized in school-like settings,” said Robert Wortman, an associate professor of practice in the University of Arizona College of Education. “Kids who don’t have that experience typically are not successful in kindergarten.”

Education Week Research Center reported in 2015 that just 35.2 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in Arizona attend preschool, ranking the state next to last in the country.

The number of children attending preschool is partially influenced by income: 64 percent of children whose household makes $100,000 are enrolled in preschool versus just 4 out of 10 whose household makes $20,000.

“I can definitely tell the difference between a student who has had some preschool experience and exposure to some of those early learning skills versus a child who comes into kindergarten without that background,” said Valerie Simon, principal of Willcox Elementary School.

A Growing Gap

A study in 2013 by Stanford psychologists found that children from poorer and less-educated families are almost two years behind on standardized language development when they enter school. The achievement gap starts as early as 18 months of age, the study found.

The tests revealed that children from higher-income families could identify pictures, such as a ball and a dog, faster than their lower-income counterparts. This somewhat small difference compounds itself to a growing achievement gap between different socioeconomic levels.

“A lot of rural communities have higher rates of poverty than other communities,” said Erin Lyons, CEO of Child Parent Centers, the non-profit agency that oversees classroom curriculum, child development, and health and nutritional services among others for Head Start centers in southeastern Arizona. “We know that access to high-quality preschool makes a particular difference for children who are in families that are in poverty because of the additional support provided.”

Diego plays with peanuts at the Sandbox Early Childhood Center. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News
Diego plays with peanuts at the Sandbox Early Childhood Center. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News

The 30 Million Words Initiative, which encourages and helps parents use their words in a way that will help their child’s development, focuses its ideas around a 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. They found that average children from welfare families hear about 30 million cumulative words less by their 4th birthday than their more affluent counterparts.

These differences in vocabulary set those children with lower literacy skills already behind their peers when entering kindergarten.

“Unfortunately the American school system is set up so that the kids who look smart faster do better in school,” Wortman said. “If it takes you a while to look smart in school, which means knowing the letters, the sounds and numbers, you’re treated differently in school.”

Issues with Access and Quality

According to Sonya Gaches, an assistant professor of practice in the UA College of Education, access to quality preschool programs is a large barrier for children’s enrollment.

“The reality is if we expect people to live in a way that is equitable, then all children need to have equitable access to learning opportunities,” Gaches said.

One barrier facing any community, but especially rural ones, is money. Arizona’s state constitution makes no provision for anything below first grade, making funding for preschool and kindergarten harder to come by.

In Willcox, Simon said parents have three options for their children: an integrated preschool run by the school district, a federally funded Head Start center and a private preschool run by the Methodist Church.

The waiting list for the Willcox Elementary preschool is significantly long. Sometimes, when a mother has her child, she will call the school to put their name on the waiting list years in advance, according to Simon. Other families are not able or willing to pay the money for tuition-based preschool.

“Beyond having more funding to offer preschool services in our community, I’m not sure there’s anything else we can do,” Simon said.

There are a number of funding streams that provide some money to preschools, but these are typically not enough. Some schools are able to make do with their Title I money and some families receive funding from the Department of Economic Security with which eligibility requirements vary with each child care program. Money from DES has also decreased over the years.

Dante plays with legos at the Sandbox Early Childhood Center. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News
Dante plays with legos at the Sandbox Early Childhood Center. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News

The Department of Health and Human Services also provides some money to inclusion-based programs that work with children with special needs. This federally requires the state to provide money to these programs, but these different funding mixes still leave a financial burden on preschools to fund their operations.

“Research says that in order for it to be high-quality, you’re going to pay for high-quality,” said Dianette Plácido, a board member for Child-Parent Centers. “High-quality all around is roughly about $10,000 a kid, which is a lot of money in the eyes of a politician who wants to spend x amount on whatever else.”

For programs like Head Start, funding is allocated by the federal government through the Department of Heath and Human Services. Organizations, like Child-Parent Centers, receive grants directly from the government to be used.

Another concern with preschool is making sure that children are receiving quality care and education. Programs like Head Start are high-quality models, which partly entail a low teacher to student ratio. Lyons said this is also difficult to do; since teachers have low salaries, it’s difficult to keep them or to even get them in a more rural community.

Helping Communities

One of the biggest initiatives that help families in need gain quality preschool for their children is Head Start. Child-Parent Centers Inc. has 43 Head Start centers in five different counties across southeastern Arizona.

Head Start is a federal program from the Department of Health and Human Services that provides children from lower-income families the opportunity to attend preschool in order to narrow the achievement gap between children from higher income families.

Plácido said Head Start is a great resource for these families since there is some wiggle room for acceptance based off income requirements from the federal poverty guidelines. There are some spaces for children whose families are above the income requirement, and children with disabilities get a spot if one is open regardless of their income.

Most preschools and Head Starts also help families with services such as health care to provide a kind of one-stop shop for them.

“Head Start is a particular help to children because it addresses all aspects of their development,” Lyons said. “We’re not a care provider, but we do link families to services that they need.”

Some communities also have Early Head Start in addition to regular Head Start that consist of home visitation and classroom teaching aimed at pregnant women, infants and toddlers up to 3 years of age.

“Those programs work with the families directly, one-on-one in their homes, to educate their parents on child development and what they can do,” Plácido said.

Other programs, such as those designed by the 30 Million Words Initiative, are being implemented to help children who might not be able to attend preschool. In Tucson, Make Way for Books has a number of programs within the community to help children and parents gain early literacy materials.

One program from Make Way for Books is the Neighborhood School Readiness program, which saturates 12 Tucson Unified School District neighborhoods with literary resources for children and their parents.

A caretaker hugs Paloma after putting on her shoes. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News
A caretaker hugs Paloma after putting on her shoes. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News

“We engage educators and families to help foster that brain development in their children through conversation, play, books, and exploration,” said Plácido, who is also the Neighborhood School Readiness coordinator at Make Way for Books. “Building those words will help build a child’s vocabulary, which is the foundation for a lot of other skills they’ll need in the future.”

There are other programs in southern Arizona, such as Cradle to Career in Pima County and United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, that focus on early childhood education and school readiness.

These programs, however, typically do not extend fully into the more rural areas of Arizona. In smaller communities such as Willcox, no early literacy programs such as Make Way for Books are available, which contributes to the three preschools’ high demand.

While preschool has benefits for children from any background, it’s especially important for children who come from rural communities and poorer families who might already be at a disadvantage before preschool.

“I think preschool is worthwhile for everybody, but particularly for poor kids,” Wortman said. “They need it to survive and have the opportunity to be successful in school.”

Shannon Higgins is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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