Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

On her way to work each day, single mom Marcela Lucero drops off her 4-year-old son, Andrew, at school, where he and 40 other children from low-income families spend their days with colorful puzzles, educational games, even a computer with Internet access. The Berkeley Avenue Children’s Center in Echo Park has been giving 2- to 5-year-olds a head start on their education since 1944. But last month school officials deemed it “not cost-effective” and proposed shutting it down at the end of June.

In an effort to trim half a million dollars from its $9 billion budget, L.A. Unified could close six of these Early Childhood Education Centers. The district has promised to find room for the children at other centers, but parents with transportation problems and access concerns say it’s not that simple.

“These are areas that are economically disadvantaged, and now you’re taking their early-education programs away from them,” says Lucero, who works at a nonprofit organization downtown and says that if she’s forced to move Andrew to a school in another neighborhood, she’ll have to hire someone to pick him up at the end of the day. The closest alternate center has a long waiting list — school administrators have told her there might not be room.

Unlike many of the Berkeley Avenue parents, Lucero has access to affordable day care. “But I don’t want someone to take care of my child at home. I want my child learning. That’s the purpose of these centers.”

Improved early childhood education has been a centerpiece of the school board’s current reform effort. For now, the focus has been on instruction in kindergarten and first and second grades, but preschool education has been considered an important future piece of the puzzle. But now, instead of expanding preschool education, the first major change could be a cutback. The school board is expected to vote on the plan later this month or in June.

District officials say consolidating the early-education centers will allow them to run the remaining ones more efficiently. “They’re small centers and they’re not cost-effective,” says Assistant Superintendent Carmen Schroeder. “This should in no way be perceived as LAUSD not being supportive of early ed. It’s just an issue that deals with budget, that’s all.”

The six facilities in question are Allesandro Children’s Center, Berkeley Children’s Center, Compton Children’s Center, Richland Children’s Center, San Pedro Children’s Center and Utah Children’s Center. Each has an enrollment of 50 students or fewer. Most of the city’s remaining 96 centers have at least 100 students.

By shutting down the six smallest centers, the district expects to save $553,628. “Half a million is not an inconsequential amount of money,” says L.A. Unified Budget Director Lorenzo Tyner.

Teachers-union representative Irma Fraigun disagrees. “As far as we’re concerned, that’s like a penny in the gutter that nobody bends to pick up,” she says, adding that an institution with a multibillion-dollar budget could certainly find some other place to trim the fat. In addition to the 229 students, the closures would affect 15 teachers, five administrators, 27 aides and 12 other staff members. Most of them have been told they will be relocated.

As a longtime teacher in one of the district’s other early-education centers, Fraigun says it’s not the potential lost jobs that worry her most. It’s that a program to improve academic performance is being scaled back as the demand for it is increasing. “It’s an unthinkable thing they’re trying to do here,” she says. “This is a program that should be expanding.”

Parents and teachers have been meeting with district officials and speaking out against the closures. At a recent school-board meeting, dozens of vocal parents showed up to protest. School-board member Caprice Young says their arguments are convincing. Though the small centers are more expensive to run than some of the larger ones, Young says, these six schools are located in very high-need communities and should therefore be spared. “There are lots of places where the school district needs to become more efficient,” says Young, who plans to vote against the district’s plan and recommend that the district find less-disruptive ways to cut its expenses.

A bill before the state Legislature would increase funding from the state for the education centers. If it passes, the bill would take effect in January 2002. At present, the state and federal governments cover about $7,000 of the nearly $10,000 per student it costs to operate the early-education centers. The rest comes from L.A. Unified.

Until a decision is made, parents like Lucero are in limbo. They could find out as late as mid-June that their children’s schools will be closing at the end of the month. “The community depends on these centers,” she says. “Now you’re trying to take them away. It’s going to make things a lot more difficult.”

LA Weekly