LAS CRUCES – 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.
Charlie, who has been to preschool before, 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 childcare 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. 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 childcare, and difficulty in recruiting and retaining trained childcare workers, especially in rural areas.
According to a December 2016 report from CYFD, childcare 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 childcare 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 cost of high-quality childcare 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 childcare. 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 childcare subsidies for families making 150 percent of the federal poverty level or less.
Of those who do get childcare assistance, roughly a third use it at a high-quality center, considered three-star or above, according to CYFD, which licenses and regulates childcare 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 childcare 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 childcare providers. Those caregivers are not regulated by CYFD at all.
If you look at a map of childcare 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. 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 are incentives to licensed providers to increase education levels and pay for their staffs, expanding the number of subsidies, making families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level eligible 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
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.
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.
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 attending 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 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 many 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 childcare 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.”
By the Numbers
45%: Children under 5 living in poverty in Dona Ana County
34%: Children under 5 living in poverty in New Mexico
18%: Families who can comfortably afford private, licensed childcare.
15,229: Children under 5 in Doña Ana County
132,139: Children under 5 in New Mexico
26%: State third-graders proficient in reading
30%: State third-graders proficient in math
$3,206: Cost of half-day New Mexico Pre-K
$6,412: Cost for extended day services (7 hours)