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Public schools open classes for kids as young as 15 months

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Clarendon preschooler Lilibeth Castrejon Pantoja smiles as she approaches her preschool class at Clarendon Regional Early Learning Center.

Under an artistic tree-shaped pillar in the atrium of the Clarendon Regional Early Learning Center, parents sit reading to their preschoolers in a “soft start” before the tots head off to class.

Clarendon parent Khao Sengprechenh, who came to Portland from Laos 30 years ago, is enthusiastic about the opportunities the school will give to the younger two of his three boys.

“I believe he can have a bright future,” Sengprechenh says of 4-year-old Taytay, noting his emerging reading ability and better emotional control since starting the program. “I’m so proud of my son.”

Now entering its second year, the Clarendon Regional Early Learning Center is on the leading edge of a wave of $100 million worth of early childhood education supports in Oregon. TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Authkham Sengprechenh holds 4-year-old son Taytay. She says the family loves the school, which opened in 2014.

Pooling resources such as the Portland Children’s Levy, Title 1 funding for impoverished children, and Head Start — a federal early childhood education program that celebrated its 50th anniversary this year — the North Portland school now has 167 students from ages 15 months to 5 years.

Next school year, there will be even more such programs across the state.

The new Early Learning Division of the Oregon Department of Education scored a major victory in the 2015 Oregon Legislature with a bill to expand government-paid preschool programs. Preschool Promise will offer services to families making up to twice the federal poverty level (which would be $48,500 for a family of four).

Recently released data from the research and advocacy group Children First for Oregon show that 385,000 children, nearly half of the total in the state, live in or near poverty.

“It helps us to expand access to individuals who are at a higher level of the poverty threshold, but still fall into that space where the ability to afford preschool or child care might be out of reach for their families,” says Director Megan Irwin, who has led the division since it began in July 2013. “What that bill did was create a new system for preschool in our state.”

Fifty-seven school districts in Oregon currently operate a preschool program. The Early Learning Division expects to expand that with programs serving 1,400 more preschoolers by September 2016.

House Bill 3380 will use the 16 Early Learning Hubs across the state to set up a mix of preschool programs — picked from applications of existing preschool or child care programs that meet quality standards. The state is setting up the standards, but the actual solutions won’t be decided on until next spring because it will be up to each hub to develop its own strategy.

“Sitting in my office in Salem, there is no way for me to deeply understand the challenges of a family living in poverty in Glide, Ore.,” Irwin says, using for an example a tiny community 80 miles south of Eugene.

The Early Learning Hubs are charged with identifying children who are most at-risk of coming to kindergarten unprepared, prioritizing support methods, coordinating across sectors, and accounting for outcomes.

In Multnomah County, the hub is administered through the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette.

Irwin says one of Multnomah County’s solutions is creating Community Education Workers — hiring people within marginalized cultural groups to connect their peers to education.

“It’s one of my favorite innovations,” she says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Naima Smith and O.C. Frazier enjoy the family-style breakfast at Clarendon Regional Early Learning Center.

Few cheap options

While the rest of the state is grappling with the first school year of full-day kindergarten, for much of Portland it is business as usual. Portland Public Schools began offering full-day kindergarten (albeit in some cases for a fee) in 1998. David Douglas School District and Parkrose School District began a few years later.

Now that parents are getting used to the idea of full-day school at age 5, observers are wondering if there will come a day when parents expect public school to start at age 4 or even younger.

“I would hope so,” says PPS’s Harriet Adair, assistant superintendent and administrator of the early childhood education office at the district. “I think that’s what the state is talking about.”

Currently, many preschoolers are enrolled in private schools, such as one of the more than 60 co-ops that are part of the Parent-Child Preschools Organization.

“If all (Oregon children) could receive preschool services, that would be a big step,” says Kathy Ems, vice president of PCPO.

Co-ops are private schools that by definition require many hours of parental involvement, in addition to tuition. Ems says families at 200 percent of the poverty line or below find the schools’ requirements are “often not a good fit” for their schedule, meaning because both parents likely have to work full-time to get by, they can’t volunteer at a co-op.

Ems says she is pleased that the state is putting a higher priority on early childhood education, but worries about the tone of the classroom.

“Our concern is that these preschools be developmentally appropriate and not academically focused,” Ems says. PCPO advocates for play-based instruction and has lobbied hard at the Department of Education to tone down the academic expectations in the Oregon Kindergarten Assessment, a new standardized test administered to all kindergarteners beginning in 2014. (Read our coverage: Does test ask kindergarteners the wrong questions?)

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Scott Duncan reads to his children, Colin, left, and Garren, during Clarendon Regional Early Learning Center's 'soft start,' where parents can help their children adjust to the start of the school day.

‘The kids need it’

At Clarendon, the teachers talk primarily about teaching classroom behavior, such as picking up, listening and sharing.

“Early childhood education is so imperative to help children prepare for school,” says teacher Carrie Brown, who runs a Montessori-style Indian Education program at the site.

“The kids need it. They need that education. They need that structure,” says Maygen Hess, a leader on the Parent Policy Council.

The same might be said of the parents.

Luzangee Claxton-Garcia started hanging around the resource room at Clarendon because it was the only calm place the mother of four could find. In fact, she stuck around so much, that the staff gave her a job last summer — outreach to other parents.

“I feel so appreciative of this room,” Claxton-Garcia says. She says she found numerous resources there to help her children, three of whom have autism, and now the formerly shy mom pulls others out of their shells.

“I thought I was a great mom before,” she says. “Now, I’m an awesome mom.”


Oregon has started to step up its efforts in supporting early childhood education. Out of $100 million in recently allocated funds:

  • $50 million went to the Department of Human Services to support early childhood, special education, and employment-related day care.
  • $16 million was allocated to Preschool Promise (mixed-delivery preschool for about 1,400 kids)
  • $10 million went to Early Learning Hubs
  • $9.5 went to Healthy Families Oregon, a child abuse prevention program
  • $5 million went to kindergarten partnership and innovation
  • $2.2 million went to child care networks
  • $1 million went to relief nurseries

  • Shasta Kearns Moore
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