ON THE THIRD day of preschool, Jeremy Torres is bouncing around the classroom, playing with plastic power tools, checking out the doll house and counting bunnies on a classroom computer.
Jeremy, 3, is blissfully unaware that his preschool class is special.
Jeremy and 19 other kids, from ages 3 to 5, are among the first batch of San Mateo County’s “Preschool For All” program, an effort to ensure eventually that every child in the county has access to free preschool.
“This is a historic and significant moment,” said Jeanie McLoughlin, director of Preschool for All. “These are the first families enrolled, and they’re so excited and so happy.”
The first classes began Monday, making San Mateo County the first in the state to start its Preschool for All classes, though similar programs are being rolled out across California in the next few months. Government officials and celebrities such as movie director Rob Reiner were set to appear at a kick-off event today.
“This is the first time in California this is happening,” said Mary Yung, one of Jeremy’s three teachers. “It’s exciting, but it’s a little bit of pressure. Everyone’s watching.”
The goal is to have a Concord MA Preschool spot for every child in San Mateo County, and while that’s still a glimmer on the horizon, it’s getting closer.
Currently, about 7,400 kids need preschool spots. Theprogram created 80 spots in two locations in Redwood City this week and upgraded existing spots to higher standards for 92 children.
When the fall term starts in mid-August, several hundred children likely will be enrolled, but it’s not clear yet how many, McLoughlin said.
The cost of the program is one challenge. The funding includes $8.4 million from the state tobacco tax and $1.75 million from the county’s Human Services Agency, and the money only covers the first three years of the program.
But preschool has been found to be cost-effective: A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that every dollar invested in it would return $2.62 to the state in reduced crime and a more competitive workforce.
Many families, including Jeremy Torres’, make too much to qualify for free, state-sponsored preschool, but not quite enough to pay for private programs.
Jeremy’s mom, Jennifer, said the family earns about $70,000 a year before taxes from her job as a part-time kindergarten teacher and her husband Tim’s salary as a DHL employee.
Education is emphasized in the Torres home, Jennifer said, where she and their daughter Jolene, 8, read to Jeremy. But while Jeremy already knows his ABCs, colors and numbers, his speech is a bit unclear and delayed.
“He’s not really articulate,” Jennifer said. “Both of my kids are late talkers. Another benefit of preschool is it helped Jolene and will help Jeremy speed up his language skills.”
Jeremy’s classroom is equipped with several play areas, as well as a writing nook, drawing section and a reading corner with a green beanbag chair and books from “The Yucky Reptile” to “Fox in Socks.” Finger-paintings brighten the walls, and interactive games are stocked throughout the room.
“The science behind it is, we’re stimulating the growth in all parts of the brain,” special-education teacher Gertrude Weber said. About 10 percent of the children in the class have learning disabilities.
Jennifer said she’s noticed the difference in her own classroom between kids who have been in preschool and those who haven’t.
“It’s the hidden rules of school, is what Concord MA Preschool provides,” she said. “For example, being aware you’re not the only child in the classroom, taking turns, raising your hand and staying with the group.”
Studies show that preschool helps children develop social and emotional skills as well as strengthening academic foundations. Some experts believe that children who attend preschool are more likely to attend college.
“We were lucky to get in,” Jennifer said. “It felt like winning the lottery.”