New early childhood education center to open this fall in East Oakland

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On Tuesday, Alternatives in Action (AIA) administrators and staff hosted the grand opening of their new early childhood education center in the Seminary neighborhood of East Oakland.

Speakers, including board members and the executive director, addressed a small but lively crowd in front of a backdrop of golden balloons spelling out “ECEC”—short for early childhood education center. Behind the speakers stood the newly-remodeled building and a playground with a sandbox and two playhouses.

The event included tours of the new care center for infants and toddlers and a chance for community members to meet staff and teachers. During the tour of the sunny, peaceful space, teachers outlined the school’s philosophy of letting children learn through exploration and creativity, inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

It’s about “observing the children and seeing where they are,” and using that information to guide classroom activities, said Carolina Ayala, an assistant teacher at the center.

The new center is the fifth campus in Oakland for the non-profit, and a new iteration of their previous preschool program, Home Sweet Home, which closed in 2015 when the organization moved to Oakland from Alameda. The AIA programs also include their own charter high school and running extracurricular programs at Fremont High School, McClymonds High School and Life Academy. Students at the charter school are required to choose one of three tracks for their studies, what they call “career pathways.” These include media, K-12 education and early childhood education.

In addition to providing childcare, the center will also serve as a learning lab for the high school students on the early childhood education track. The older students, referred to as “big friends,” will spend part of their school day volunteering with the infants and toddlers.

Jasmine Martinez, 17, a senior at AIA High School who emceed the event, said she’s excited to work there because “when younger kids see older kids doing stuff, they want to do it too.” It’s a way to give back to her community and “make the future better,” she said.

According to Shawn Koval, AIA’s institutional giving manager, there are no other services like this one in the Seminary neighborhood, calling it “the only infant/toddler center in this zip code.”

AIA Early Childhood Education Director Cierra Price echoed this assertion in a phone interview. “There are family home daycares in the area,” she said, “but there are no centers.”

The center is slated to open in early November, but AIA staff are still awaiting licensing approval from California Community Care, the state program that oversees childcare licenses. Since it will function as both an infant/toddler center as well as a preschool, the center will operate as a private school and will not receive any funding from the state or the city of Oakland.

Center administrators intend to enroll up to 15 infants and 20 toddlers right away.  Once the preschool program begins next summer they anticipate an additional 26 students.

Close to 50 percent of the infant and toddler seats are already being held for families that intend to enroll, said Price, but the enrollment process will not be completed until the opening date has been verified. “We’re trying to make sure that we take all the right steps and that we have the right information on our contracts,” she said.

This fall, eight spaces will be reserved for families who qualify for state-subsidized childcare. Most families who are at or below the poverty line—an income of $24,000 for a family of four in the state of California—qualify, which allows children to attend the school for free. The state pays their tuition. Full price tuition for the infant/toddler center ranges from $1,800 to $1,650 per month for full-time care.

Tuition for the preschool program as well as the number of subsidized spaces is still undetermined and, according to Price, is largely dependent on the cost of remodeling the space that will house the program. The building where the preschool will be located sits directly behind the infant and toddler center and will have a playground that connects the two. “We’ll be doing a complete gut and remodel of that space, including adding windows and doors,” she said. “We believe in having a lot of natural light.”

 In Alameda County, the average monthly cost of full-time infant and preschool care in a licensed center is $1,286 and $926 respectively, according to the 2015 California Child Care Portfolio, a biennial report. The district does not track the average cost of private preschool or infant/toddler care in Oakland.

“We want to keep subsidies high, but we want to ensure we’re meeting our budget,” said Price. “We’re a non-profit but we do have to make sure we’re making enough to employ the qualified staff and provide the supplies we’ve committed to providing.”

At the opening, prospective parent Malila Becton-Consuegra said that there were “a lot” of daycare options near her home in King Estates for her 13-month-old son, Yaxche, but “they were expensive and this one is affordable.”

Difficulty finding affordable child care and preschool options in Oakland is a persistent issue for residents. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who spoke at the opening, called East Oakland a “preschool desert.” According to the 2016-17 Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) regional analysis, the area has more than three times as many school-age children as any other region in the city.

 According to a list of Oakland’s federally and state-subsidized child care sites complied earlier this year by Alameda County, the zip code where AIA early childhood center is located—94621—has a particularly high unmet childcare need. In that region that are 10 subsidized infant/toddler seats, but more than 500 children under the age of three who qualify for free care. For preschool age there are 461 subsidized seats, leaving another 329 income-eligible children without care.

Speaking by phone, Christie Anderson, executive director of early learning for the district, defined “preschool deserts” as areas that do not have adequate resources for parents who want to enroll their children in “high quality” infant, toddler and early childhood education services.

She estimates that the district, which runs preschool programs for children from 3 to 5 years old, can serve about 1,600 children and is 90 percent enrolled.

The school district does not run its own infant/toddler facilities and uses Early Head Start and the Unity Council as subcontractors. These organizations provide families from low-income homes with free access to child care, medical and dental care, and family support services such as parenting classes. Although she did not have data specifically for the Seminary neighborhood, Anderson said, “There are a couple of zip codes in that area that we’re really trying to focus on to make sure families have access.” She particularly noted the nearby Havenscourt and Castlemont neighborhoods.

Anderson said that finding information on schools can be “very challenging” for parents and some have trouble knowing what their options are unless the school is right across the street. She mentioned that a key part of her work with the city is to increase access to information for families. “We want families to know what’s there for them, what their choices are. That’s really important,” she said.

District 6 School Board Director Shanthi Gonzales, who represents the Seminary neighborhood, pointed to access as the single largest factor preventing families in East Oakland from enrolling their children in early childhood education programs. “The district has empty slots, so I don’t see a need to increase income-qualified programs,” she said, speaking by phone.

Gonzales believes that there are “a lot of people who qualify but don’t apply,” either because they are unaware of the programs or because they are leery of the state-required income verification process. She mentioned that this might be particularly problematic for families with undocumented members.

Price noted that the state income verification process will be used at the AIA center, which may deter some families. “If a family is reaching out for subsidized care through the state, they do have to fill out the forms that the state requires,” she said. She added, “Our organization considers ourselves a safe space for families.”

Price hopes to eventually offer scholarship funds for families in AIA’s early childhood program so that it can be accessible to everyone without parents needing to go through the process for state funding. “That’s the dream,” she said.

This story was updated on September 22 to correct the spelling of Cierra Price’s name.

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