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AT KITAYAMA PRESCHOOL in Union City, children are coloring, making necklaces with Cheerios and sifting through cornmeal with measuring cups.

Family photos decorate the classroom. At the entrance, “welcome” is printed in 12 languages from Chinese to Spanish.

Parent Anahi Mendoza is pleased. Her 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, is learning English, having fun and attending a school near their home for free.

“It is good,” Mendoza said in Spanish. “I like it here.”

Finding a preschool can be challenging. For low-income parents such as Mendoza, free and low-cost programs tend to have waiting lists. For higher income parents, private preschools can cost more than $1,000 a month, or four times the California State Universitytuition.

But there are plenty of resources to help choose a preschool, and a movement is growing to provide publicly funded, free preschool for all 4-year-olds in the state.

You’ve probably seen the First 5 California television ads with businessmen Eli Broad and Lewis Platt touting the benefits of quality preschool.

Research has found that children who attend quality preschool are more likely to be better students, earn more money and stay away from crime.

But California ranks 37th in the nation in Concord MA Preschool enrollment rates. Only 47 percent of the 1.17 million preschool-aged children attend preschool, including only 37 percent of Latinos.

The problem is especially acute among low-income families. More than three-fourths of the state’s publicly funded preschool programs have wait lists, according to a recent survey by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California.

“We have a real crisis here in California that needs to be addressed,” said Catherine Atkin, president of Oakland-based Preschool California.

The group advocates voluntary preschool for all 4-year-olds in California. It is working with actor/director Rob Reiner, the First 5 California chairman, to craft a June 2006 ballot initiative that would raise $2 billion a year to make public preschool freely available to any 4-year-old who wants it.

“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Mark Friedman, executive director of First 5 Alameda County, which has funded improvements at child-care facilities, provided early childhood education and given stipends to teachers.

Across the Bay, San Mateo County is the first in the state to implement free preschool for all, using $10 million over three years from the county, First 5 San Mateo, First 5 California and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

After three years of planning, the first classes for 80 preschoolers will begin next month in Redwood City, said Jeanie McLaughlin, director of Preschool for All — San Mateo County. Other counties also plan preschool for all programs, including San Francisco and Santa Clara, she said.

For those looking to find a preschool, a good place to start is your local resource and referral agency. Each county has at least one. Alameda County has three, including BANANAS in Oakland.

“Some people call us before they have their babies,” BANANAS program director Arlyce Currie said.

BANANAS offers free parenting information, workshops and referrals to child care and preschools. Parents should look for safe schools with a variety of activities, good teachers and good communication, Currie said.

“Focus on your child, not what the world thinks is good,” Currie said.

Oakland resident Danielle Rinsler, a financial planning manager, and husband Patrick Heron, a software development manager, began looking last fall for a preschool for their daughter, Anna, who is now 11/2. They have talked to 10 schools, visited four and found waiting lists for the ones they like.

The full-day private schools cost from $1,000 a month to nearly $1,400 a month, but price isn’t their biggest issue.

“Compared to what we’re paying for a nanny, it’s less expensive,” Rinsler said. “It’s all relative.”

But they do want something beginning this fall near their Rockridge District home. Ideally, the teacher would speak Spanish, like their nanny.

“We’re expecting we’re going to have to make some concessions,” Rinsler said. “But we’re hopeful we can find something comfortable.”

In most cases, parents should start looking for a preschool nine to 12 months in advance, said Oakland resident Lee Eisman, founder of East Bay Moms.


East Bay Moms publishes a preschool directory and hosts an annual preschool fair, which last month attracted about 500 parents.

Most traditional preschools cost $500 to $1,000 a month, Eisman said. Co-operative preschools, which require a lot of parent participation, can start as low as $200 a month, said Eisman, whose son attended a co-op.

“The key is to be able to go and watch, so you’re seeing the way the teachers respond to problems,” said registered nurse and mother Rona Renner, radio talk show host of Childhood Matters in Berkeley. “Whether it’s the most expensive or most sought after doesn’t mean it fits with your values.”

Fremont private, nonprofit agency Kidango is doing its part, thanks to its partnership with the state and New Haven Unified School District in Union City. Three years ago, it became California’s first program to make available subsidized preschool to every family in its school district.

Kidango has preschool classes at all New Haven elementary schools, including Kitayama, and at its high school and adult school. They serve 600 children, or one-third of the district’s preschool-aged population. They are open to all California residents, but 99 percent live in the district. Some classes have waiting lists, and if demand increases, more classes could be added.

Classes are free to low-income families — about two-thirds of participants. For those with higher incomes, the fee is around $400 a month for part-time care and nearly $600 a month for full-time care.

New Haven is on the cutting edge, but the growing interest in preschool for all could lead others to try it, said Paul Miller, Kidango executive director.

A morning class of 22 at Kidango Kitayama ends with circle time. “Sientete,” center director Renuka Hiremani said. That’s “sit down” in Spanish.

Hiremani, a native of India, speaks four Indian languages, some Urdu and keeps a Spanish language dictionary by her side.

Parent Shirley Ng likes that it is a fun environment, close to home and free. Her 5-year-old son, Edgar Tang, who previously attended a private preschool, has been in the class for six months and already has improved his language skills and made friends, she said.

“Before, he could not speak English very well. At home, he spoke Chinese,” Ng said. “Now he speaks better. Now he can socialize better.”