Charlie Garcia is a bubbly 4-year-old with soft brown curls. Sitting down for a small group activity on a late-August afternoon at Alpha School in Las Cruces, she chatters with her teachers and friends.
Sitting quietly nearby is Evelynn Aguirre McClure.
Assistant teacher Brittany Polanco encourages the two girls and their classmate to build a house and fill it with drawings of their families. Using popsicle sticks, Polanco shows them how to make the outlines, flip the sticks over, glue them and then flip them back over so they stick to the paper.
Evelynn, with straight brown bangs and a long bob, draws a perfect square with glue, then presses her sticks onto the paper.
“Awesome everyone, great job!” encourages Polanco.
Besides their hair and personalities, there is one other thing that sets Charlie and Evelyn apart from each other. Charlie has been to preschool before. Evelynn has not.
Charlie is an exception in the afternoon class of the state-funded New Mexico PreK at Alpha School, which is dedicated almost exclusively to children who haven’t had preschool, said Alpha School Director Ray Jaramillo. The school wanted to give more kids access to the purposeful play and learning that could affect the rest of their school careers.
“The science has caught up to where we are today. We understand how important early childhood is to brain development and relationships,” Jaramillo said. “Now we’re seeing the results of early childhood education.”
With 80 percent of brain development happening in the first three years of a child’s life and state data showing that early childhood education can eliminate the achievement gap for low-income children, Doña Ana County has stopped waiting on Santa Fe for a plan to ramp up early childhood education, and is creating a model that has the potential to work in the rest of New Mexico.
“What we’re trying to do is solve the problem in Doña Ana County, but I do believe that by doing this work, we’re going to affect how New Mexico looks at the situation,” said Frank Lopez, executive director of Ngage New Mexico. The education nonprofit organized a coalition of early childhood educators, child well-being nonprofits and community members that has the ambitious goal to guarantee universal access to early childhood education in the county.
Test case for New Mexico?
In many ways, Doña Ana County is a good laboratory to experiment with efforts to increase access to early childhood education: Its demographics are similar to much of the state, though it has a higher poverty rate and the complication of mixed immigration status for some families. Half of its population is in Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, but the other half resides in rural communities that struggle to offer high-quality childhood programs. And, it has access to a research university.
Over the past three years, Ngage has brought together more than 60 people and 15 organizations to identify the stumbling blocks to access and to better coordinate their services to fully use all the resources currently at hand.
It created a research center with partner New Mexico State University — the Center for Community Analysis — to put hard data behind the effort, and to identify where services are and where they’re not. The coalition has also hired an early childhood education coordinator and a communications specialist to raise awareness of the advantages of early learning with both parents and policy makers.
Most importantly, the coalition is in the final stages of a countywide plan to take to legislators in Santa Fe during the upcoming legislative session.
While many of the early childhood obstacles the coalition has encountered are known by state policymakers, the group has leveraged the boots-on-the-ground knowledge of its members to narrow the focus to areas they believe will make the biggest difference for families in Doña Ana County and New Mexico: capacity and workforce.
If every child under 5 in Doña Ana County — all 15,229 of them — needed to be in some kind of licensed care, either home- or center-based, there would be room for fewer than half of them, according to an analysis conducted by Center for Community Analysis.
CCA Program Manager Erica Surova and her research team pulled together Census data, every child-care provider licensed by the Children, Youth and Families Department, and quantified how many funded slots exist in the county for home visiting, Early Head Start, Head Start, New Mexico PreK and public preschool for at-risk or developmentally delayed children — all considered evidence-based programs that can help with brain development and social-emotional skills.
Their analysis found that nearly two-thirds of children under 5 in Doña Ana County were not enrolled in free or subsidized evidence-based early childhood programs. But nearly half of the county’s children under 5 live in poverty, putting them at a disadvantage when they show up to kindergarten.
The limited access can be traced to the high cost of child care and the difficulty in recruiting and retaining trained child-care workers, especially in rural areas.
According to a December 2016 report from CYFD, child-care center directors in New Mexico said one-third of their staffs turn over every year. And walking with them out the door is all the state-funded training that higher-quality centers are required to give to workers. That same report said the median hourly wage for child-care workers in the state was $9.10, a 4 percent drop in wages since 2010.
“You can’t expect people to stay in a profession if they barely can survive,” Surova said.
The other big challenge is the the cost of high-quality child care in Doña Ana County, where two-thirds of children under 6 have both parents in the workforce.
Many parents in Doña Ana County spend one of every five dollars they earn on child care. For a single mother, it’s an even higher ratio: it’s one of every three dollars of income, according to data collected by the CCA.
The state helps many of those parents, spending $100 million per year on child-care subsidies for families making 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
Of those who do get child-care assistance, roughly a third use it at a high-quality center, considered three-star or above, according to CYFD, which licenses and regulates child-care providers. High-quality licensed providers get more state training and are reimbursed at a higher rate. The bulk of that $100 million, however, is being used at two-star child-care centers or registered providers, which shows no effect on kindergarten readiness or in reading and math proficiency. Doña Ana County is among the counties that relies heavily on registered child-care providers. Those caregivers are not regulated by CYFD at all.
If you look at a map of child-care providers, you’ll see most of the high-quality centers in Doña Ana County are in Las Cruces, with a few in the south valley communities of Anthony, Chaparral and Sunland Park. There are fewer options for high-quality care in the southern part of the county, where many of the state’s unregulated colonias sprang up. Colonias are defined as border communities that lack basic infrastructure such as roads, sewage and water. That leaves parents in a colonia like Berino with the choice of either driving their children at least six miles to Anthony or more than 20 miles into Las Cruces to access a high-quality center.
“I think two or three miles is kind of a deal-breaker for families with limited transportation — definitely in the south valley,” said Michael Radke, program coordinator at Ngage who works on early childhood at the agency.
Among the solutions the partnership is recommending is giving incentives to licensed providers to increase education levels and pay for their staffs, expanding the number of subsidies and making families eligible up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and eliminating co-payments to lessen financial losses to providers, making it easier for them to pay workers more competitive salaries.
CYFD also is working on a rating system for registered providers, which would reimburse them for higher quality care. This effort could help rural counties like Catron and Union, which have no licensed care at all.
Return on investment
On a late August morning, the 4-year-olds at Alpha School are enjoying the school’s playground, where mature trees shade them from the New Mexico sun. In the well-provisioned play area children have access to climbing structures and swings, a sandbox and multiple buckets of toys. A pathway meanders through the yard, where kids pedal bright red bikes and ride scooters.
It’s almost time to go in for lunch, and the teachers begin to round up kids.
“Everyone pick up five toys please,” says morning PreK teacher Jennie Martinez.
With consistent coaxing, the kids gather the scattered toys. Stragglers line up for lunch with the help of another teacher, who leads a few rousing rounds of “if you’re hungry and you know it, clap your hands.”
Students and teacher eat together at short tables. Most of the kids serve themselves from bowls of veggies and beans. Some finish early and wait patiently on friends who are still eating. Then it’s time to line up again for large group, where a teacher reads “Beauty and the Beast.”
While the kids are animated, they follow their teachers’ directions, wait until called upon and let other students speak. Martinez says that contrasts with students in the afternoon preK. Most children in the morning class are regulars at Alpha School, and many have been in New Mexico’s Early PreK program.
It’s only week two for the newbies in the afternoon preK class that Charlie and Evelynn attend.
Polanco greets each child in the afternoon class by name as they walk in. A boy in glasses named Remy says he’s going to tell her three jokes and sing her a song. She listens with a smile as the budding comedian tells her his jokes and sings.
The greetings and interactions between teacher and student might seem like small things, but NMSU’s Surova says the “serve and return” kids get from their caregivers, whether teachers or parents, shows them how to deal with their emotions and with other people. “It’s basically the building blocks for their future success.”
The educational and social-emotional benefits of high-quality preschool programs have been shown to have lifelong effects, including higher graduation rates, higher incomes, fewer teen pregnancies and arrests for crime, according to pioneering research from the Perry Preschool Project that followed low-income children in Michigan for decades. Results like that create a 13 percent return on investment for the money spent, according to James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago who studies the economics of human development.
The first-timers among Alpha School’s afternoon students are more rambunctious during reading time. The teachers remind many of the kids to “put their bottom on the floor,” to raise their hand when they want to talk, and not to interrupt their friends when they are speaking.
“But they’ll get there,” says lead teacher Jessica Brooks-Pakinkis. It won’t take much longer than a few more weeks and you won’t see much difference between the morning PreK and the afternoon, she says.
Data from the state Legislative Finance Committee show that children who get exposure to Head Start and New Mexico PreK are more prepared for kindergarten than their peers who have not had preschool.
Before the state switched to the PARCC exam, participation in New Mexico PreK brought low-income students up to proficient level in reading. Since the switch to PARCC, which is considered a more rigorous test, just 26 percent of third-graders with prekindergarten are considered proficient in reading, but they still outperform students without PreK.
Optimism is even greater for PreK combined with K-3 Plus, another state program that adds 25 days to the school year for students in kindergarten through third grade. It is aimed at schools with a high percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch, as well as at schools ranked as failing.
“In New Mexico, we know that if you get a kid into a high-quality prekindergarten program, and then start their kindergarten program 25 days early, that if those two things happen … then the achievement gap is eliminated by kindergarten, and once they’re tested in third grade, those results are lasting,” says Tim Hand, who recently left his position as deputy director of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
It’s these results that give him and other educators confidence that expanding early childhood education can move New Mexico up from its last place in education in the U.S.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years in this state, and rarely do I see something that is within range that’s having that big an impact,” he says. “It blew me away.”
The head start
Charlie and Evelynn are in preschool for more than child care. Their parents wanted to give them the advantages of preschool.
When Nayomi Valdez, Charlie’s mom, moved back to Las Cruces from the Albuquerque area, she was able to put her daughter in a Montessori school in Las Cruces while Charlie was on the waiting list for NM PreK at Alpha School, thanks to child-care assistance. The subsidy provided financial breathing room after a recent divorce.
Meanwhile, Cassie McClure and husband Jorge Aguirre were able to leave their two children, Evelynn and Oliver, with McClure’s mother while they worked. It was a luxury many others don’t have because they don’t live near family or don’t have parents able to help with child care. Still, it meant that the shy Evelynn’s most consistent social interactions were with her grandmother and year-old brother. McClure was looking for a social outlet for her daughter.
Charlie and Evelynn are the lucky ones. Their parents knew about the importance of early learning and they found programs that could help their children get ahead. What the coalition hopes to do is expand the circle of families who are getting those advantages — to increase awareness and to make sure that those families who want it can find the services they need for their children.
So they’re turning to examining the reasons why many children aren’t in the programs. It’s about quantifying the reasons that could be stopping parents, such as the inexperience that comes from teen parenthood, working hours, cultural barriers and immigration status.
“All families love and care for their kids,” Surova says. “But maybe they don’t know what they could be doing to help them along the way so that we don’t see this huge disparity that you see between children who grow up in poverty and those who don’t grow up in poverty.”
Surova knows the pressures that come from being a working parent. She couldn’t put her own daughter in a half-day program because of work, she says. “I think there may be families that are in that type of situation, where maybe there is something available, but it’s not enough. These are all questions we are exploring. Besides just the numbers, why? What’s happening?”
Ngage’s Lopez believes answering those questions, giving parents plenty of options for early childhood services, and integrating the patchwork of child welfare programs will build a solid foundation for universal access. It will also show hesitant state legislators a clear path forward for how and where to expand early childhood education in the county.
The coalition will have a program-by-program enrollment baseline for home visiting, Head Start, NM PreK and child-care subsidies by year’s end. They are in the middle of a drive to build a children’s museum in Las Cruces that will not only provide a fun and educational resource for the area’s children, but also serve to connect parents with early childhood education resources in the county. They also hope it will build community awareness for the advantages early childhood education gives kids.
“Doña Ana County has a plan,” Lopez says. “We’re doing our analysis, we’re doing our homework — and nobody can say we don’t know where to put (resources) because Doña Ana County does know.”