Introducing virtual preschool, emphasizing teacher and child care provider training and peer monitoring are all part of San Mateo County’s vision for preparing children for school in the coming years.

At the moment, First 5 San Mateo County estimates it will spend $27.3 million on children under the age of 5 from July 2009 through July 2011. Of that, $10.5 million will be focused on early learning, according to an approved plan presented to the First 5 Commission last night. A focus on training and healthy environments will begin in the coming years. While the commission is committed to this plan in the coming years, the passage of one state measure could change the ability to sustain such programs down the road.

Over the past five years, the efforts were focused on increasing quality but also expanding openings for students, particularly in Redwood City and East Palo Alto, explained Jeanie McLoughlin, director of Preschool for All in San Mateo County.

There were 3,368 students reached, of which 85 percent were Latino and 77 percent did not speak English as their first language. These children came from households with an income under $42,000 annually.

This program is paid for by a direct per-child reimbursement. Moving ahead, that will no longer be the case. Focus on children from infants to 5 years old will be under a program called EQuIP, or Early Childhood Quality Improvement Project.

Education is a key component of the plan. There are plans to support and educate both teachers and child care providers. Data collection will also continue, with a hope of following children through the educational system to see benefits of preschool access.

Workforce development will largely be available through Cañada and Skyline colleges with the help of the 4Cs of San Mateo County, also known as the Child Care Coordinating Council.

Behavioral issues are a major challenge for people working with young children. The plan calls for the education of 60 child care providers in ways to access challenges facing an individual student and creating a curriculum to meet those needs.

Infant and toddler training will also be made available to 260 teachers and family caregiver providers. San Mateo County already rates the environment in which preschools are held. That will now be extended to areas housing infants and toddlers.

In an effort to hopefully expand preschool offerings, the county will pilot a virtual preschool program this fall in connection with 25 classrooms, or approximately 500 students at 10 sites. Modeled after the successful Chicago program, it will offer a Web site with downloadable resources to allow parents find activities in day-to-day life to enhance lessons children learn in the classroom. McLoughlin is hoping the program will be successful enough to be expanded after the pilot year.

While the commission committed to this new vision last night, the funds available to sustain the vision could change. Today, California voters are asked to vote on a number of propositions, one particularly could affect preschool funding, Proposition 1D.

First 5 California works to provide educational and health programs for children up to 5 years old. It is funded through a 50 cent per pack tobacco tax passed through 1998’s Proposition 10.

If passed, Proposition 1D would redirect some of these funds to cover health and human services currently covered by the state’s general fund. This would mean the estimated loss of $18 million over five years to San Mateo County, Debby Armstrong, executive director for First 5 San Mateo County, said previously. If that occurs, First 5 San Mateo County will need to readjust the vision going forward after July 2011, Armstrong said.

Investing in early education has proven to be a wise investment, Michelle Blakely, program officer of First 5 San Mateo County, said.

For example, a $1 investment often means a $2 to $17 return in the form of students being more prepared, doing better in school and ultimately sticking with academics for longer periods.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: heather@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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