By Nicholas von Wettberg
Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) Superintendent Dr. John Bowes welcomed a guest to the school board meeting on Thursday night.
In attendance at the Community Chambers was Yolo County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jesse Ortiz, who complimented the board on its hiring of Bowes – now entering his third month on the job.
Ortiz called it “an excellent choice, from my perspective,” and said he can see that Bowes “is committed to the Davis community and the Davis students, in just the short time I’ve got to know him.”
An hour later, following a district-led presentation on its preschool programs, in which it was reported that 71 percent of Davis children attend some form of preschool, Dr. Ortiz was brought up to the dais once again, but this time to shed some light on the county’s involvement with implementing universal preschool (UPK).
Ortiz, who was elected to the position in June of 2014 and began in January of 2015, commended the board for its willingness to discuss the state of preschool in Davis, hoping that the positive news would lead to further discussion and possible action.
“It’s wonderful to see Davis at 71 percent, but is that good enough?” he asked. “Is that good enough for any district? I think we can continue asking that question.”
Ortiz reminded the board about an unsuccessful attempt to get a preschool initiative on the upcoming November ballot, which the county’s Board of Supervisors voted down, he said due to bad timing.
He credited a number of people for their efforts with the initiative, among them Yolo County Board of Supervisor Dan Saylor.
For the past seven months, a committee has been meeting to plan out another attempt – this time for November 2018.
Signature gathering would be a part of the process, according to Ortiz, with a necessary minimum of 5,000.
“We have a ways to go in Yolo County,” he said. “We have approximately 45, 46 percent of the children that are 3- and 4-year-olds not attending preschool. That equates to about 2,100 children…I’m a strong believer that the achievement gap does start at an early age.”
Noting the importance of the term “quality preschool,” Ortiz said there are about 330 providers (preschool or daycare) in Yolo County, and that, if things go according to plan the county will receive $8 million, “if it’s a quarter cent taxed.”
He added: “The details of how that’s all going to be worked out will come, but we do know that not only is it important for low-income children to attend preschool but all children. And I’ve talked to enough parents in this county and every city to know that we have parents struggling to pay for preschool, and to make it a priority. But if we had a voucher system or a scholarship system maybe in about two and half years, where that $400 or $500 could help them with the 50 percent that they may be paying for preschool.”
Trustee Tom Adams agreed, and thought it was pertinent to distinguish between their approach to “the immediate educational goal of closing the achievement gap,” and what he called, “the long-term payoff.”
“It will just make our county that much better,” Adams said. “In terms of the social services we need later and other things, and the sense that they are part of this community if we can begin earlier and understand that the community cares about all its children I think is a great statement we can make.”
To that Ortiz replied, “I totally agree. We have to start looking at preschool as (not just) a cost, but an investment in the future. As I tell people, this is the best economic development program you could have.”
Because of the context, Board Member Alan Fernandes asked for clarification regarding vacancy rates.
“I mean because I didn’t hear an overwhelming, like, ‘oh my gosh we have to fill all these slots,’” said Fernandes. “I heard like four seats.”
DJUSD Associate Superintendent Clark Bryant, who led the preschool report presentation, said the number was correct.
“Okay, all right, so four seats out of 189, yeah, okay,” Fernandes said.
The number of available preschool spots, in Davis, was discussed earlier.
During the question and comments part of the conversation, Trustee Barbara Archer looked at the number of preschool slots (1,535 Preschool Center slots and 208 Family Child Care Home slots for preschool-age children) and asked if the amount of total slots (1,743) included private preschool, which Bryant said that they do.
“What I want to get a sense of…is what’s the percentage of slots that Davis Joint Unified is providing,” Archer asked. “It would be interesting to know, what percentage of services we are providing to preschool age children?”
Bryant said the number of slots is between 150 and 200.
Archer wanted to clarify that Davis Parent Nursery School (DPNS) is not included in the numbers.
In regard to the number of children enrolled in DJUSD preschool, Fernandes counted 189 slots (tallying the Fee-Based Preschool, Head Start, State-Funded Preschool and Special Education Preschool), based on the slides presented in the report.
Fernandes said that, with a total of 1,700 total preschool slots available in Davis, the district accounts for roughly 11 percent of all preschool spots.
“Those are the numbers I was working with also,” Bryant said.
Fernandes then asked if the 71 percent number of children attending preschool was composed entirely of the Davis community, to which Board President Madhavi Sunder said that it was just for schools within the DJUSD jurisdiction.
“I think one goal could be of our district is to say, ‘wow, in a district like ours, which does pretty well on a gradation rate of around 97 percent, wouldn’t it be something to set a goal to say that we want 97 percent enrollment in preschool of all the kids in our community,’” Fernandes said. “In other words that we’re doing on one end what we’re doing on the other.”
Bryant brought up a few points of consideration, including respecting the wishes of parents home schooling, making sure locations are in the right place, and affordability.