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Having never attended preschool, the majority of children in the Bellevue Union School District enter kindergarten unprepared.

Superintendent Alicia Henderson said about 70 percent of kindergarten students weren’t afforded a preschool experience. Some kids entered kindergarten with little to no English-language and socio-emotional skills, she said. That puts a strain on the predominantly Latino district in south Santa Rosa, ranked one of the most disadvantaged areas by the 2014 “Portrait of Sonoma County,” which mapped the growing economic and social disparities.

“We haven’t had a robust preschool opportunity for many of our families,” Henderson said.

The school district is changing that, teaming up with other agencies, including North Bay Children’s Center, Community Action Partnership and First 5 Sonoma County, to open an early learning center across the street from Kawana Springs Elementary School, near the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Efforts have been underway to improve access to quality early childhood education to boost school readiness and narrow the achievement gap in the county.

The Portrait of Sonoma County found half of preschool-age children were enrolled in some form of early education program. But the number fell to 39 percent for Latinos, the fastest growing segment of the school-age population.

In the Bellevue district, 4 in 5 children are Latino.

“Having the social skills, being in an environment where kids are required to participate and learn in a structured way supports success in kindergarten,” Henderson said.

The Early Learning Center includes Head Start and a special education preschool, which moved into the facility this past fall.

Henderson said they previously sourced out their special education preschool services, forcing families to bus their kids to attend a program across town.

Offering those services at the early learning center will allow students with special needs to interact more regularly with the mainstream population, take part in the other preschool programs and have access to on-site therapists, Henderson said.

“It’s a very seamless program,” she said about the early learning center. “The kids get what they need in real time.”

She said the program also will save the district money in the long run to move the special education services in-house.

North Bay Children’s Center will be running a half-day and full-day preschool program, which aren’t expected to start until later next month. Staff members already had arranged small wooden chairs and stools and laid out books around the two portable classrooms they will occupy at the center.

Outside, flowers have been planted in the raised beds, where the group eventually plans to teach kids how to grow edible plants.

Henderson said the early learning center is “self-sustaining,” mainly paid for by state and federal grants. The district received a state grant totaling $5 million over five years to cover the cost of offering North Bay Children’s Center preschool programs at the Moraga Drive facility, and at three of its schools.

It also received a $100,000 grant from First 5 Sonoma County, half of which came from the Sonoma County Wine Country Weekend, said Angie Dillon-Shore, executive director of First 5 Sonoma County.

The money was used to build an inclusive playground on the south end of the new campus.

“Having the center in Kawana Springs significantly increases access to high quality preschool for the children in our community that will benefit the most,” Dillon-Shore said.

She said children from low-income families who attend quality preschool are significantly more likely to be prepared for kindergarten. A recent study commissioned by her organization found 3 in 5 kids in the county weren’t ready for kindergarten last fall.

The majority of the children surveyed could write their names and play cooperatively, but struggled to focus on tasks, control their impulses, and recognize shapes and colors. Access to preschool, parents’ education and the language spoken at home played key roles in school readiness.

“If children are ready and successful in kindergarten, their chances for future academic success are far greater,” Dillon-Shore said.

Kim Milus, program director for North Bay Children’s Center, said the location of the early learning center is “crucial.”

“Families are coming from lower incomes,” she said. “It’s hard to find high-quality care that will prepare their kids for kindergarten.”

Milus said they’re currently enrolling students for their preschool program.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.