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Healdsburg preschool forced to close

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After 40 years of operation, a Healdsburg preschool that serves mostly low- income, Latino families is being forced to close its doors.

Since a broken water pipe damaged the former building it occupied and forced a move to a temporary location, the preschool has been unable to find a new home.

The last day for the Healdsburg Child Development Preschool will be Aug. 19, culminating four decades of teaching 3- and 4-year-old children and preparing them for kindergarten.

“It is a very sad loss for the agency, for staff, the Healdsburg community and children and families who depend on our services,” said Melanie Dodson, executive director of the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs, which runs the preschool.

The agency, which has a dozen preschools in Sonoma County, has been able to shift some families to other centers, but they are farther away — in Windsor or Santa Rosa, for example — or operate for a shorter period during the day.

“What are these families going to do? They are low- income. They don’t have a lot of resources,” Healdsburg site supervisor Tracy Williams said. “There aren’t many places like ours in Healdsburg. We were it.”

For some of the families affected it’s not just inconvenient, she said, “it’s life-changing.”

“I spoke with a few parents who expressed some degree of outrage that this could happen,” she said.

The preschool had operated on the campus of Healdsburg Elementary School since the early 1970s, initially run by the Sonoma County Office of Education before being taken over in 1992 by 4Cs, a nonprofit agency that provides preschool and child care services.

In March, long-term, irreparable water damage in the preschool’s portable building forced a move and demolition of the building. The operation was closed for six weeks until it was able to temporarily relocate to the Iversen Community Center, with help from grants supplied by the American Association of University Women and the Community Foundation Sonoma County – Healdsburg Area Fund, to subsidize leasing and operational costs.

But 4Cs officials say they can’t stay there and they have been unable to find a permanent location in Healdsburg.

“We’ve essentially exhausted all of the potential existing facilities in Healdsburg. And at this point we are unable to fund building an entirely new site,” said Jenny Juhl, 4Cs community relations director.

She said the agency is exploring other potential locations in Santa Rosa and Cloverdale where there also are high needs for preschool programs.

One of the big advantages of the Healdsburg program is that it operates year-round, from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., unlike many other preschools that run for part of the day, or part of the year. The longer hours more easily fit into the schedule of the parents, who are required to either be working or attending school themselves.

At the Healdsburg preschool, teaching is bilingual, and by the time children are ready to enter kindergarten their English typically is good. They not only gain social skills, but through a play-based curriculum learn things like how to cut with scissors, draw, count and name numbers.

The 4Cs agency is funded largely by the state as well as through grants and private donations. Parents have to meet low-income guidelines. The preschool is free for some, while others are charged a sliding fee based on income, according to Williams.

The closure of the Healdsburg Child Development Preschool comes at a time that universal preschool is seen as a high priority. A study, titled “Portrait of Sonoma County,” identified it as critical for making a significant impact on a child’s future health, education and economic stability.

At present, about half of the county’s preschool-age population is enrolled in some form of early education program. The gap is wider for Latino students, the fastest-growing segment of the school-age population, with an estimated 39 percent of kids enrolled in preschool.

Sonoma County Office of Education officials say that finding space to house preschool programs presents the biggest challenge to expanding access to education.

“Preschool is perhaps the single greatest indicator of future academic success,” said Chris Vanden Heuvel, Healdsburg schools superintendent, who said it gives students an advantage in literacy skills and vocabulary.

But the school district balked at building a new facility to replace the one that was damaged.

Vanden Heuvel said it would have cost from $200,000 to $500,000 to replace the building, and the school district also faced a lengthy process to get approval from state architects.

He said the district, however, remains “open to partnering in the future” with 4Cs.

“While it’s certainly a loss for families in the community, there are still preschool resources,” he said, adding that there are slots open at the district’s preschool located at its Fitch Mountain campus.

But Juhl said, “Fitch Mountain is a part-day preschool. It doesn’t fit the needs of our parents. They need full-time care.”

Some of the current students at Healdsburg Child Development Preschool are graduating, going into kindergarten this year. But about a dozen families with children who are too young and still need preschool are scrambling for other arrangements.

The 4Cs program is making every effort to find other preschools for the families, “but it’s very, very difficult for them,” Williams said. “It’s been really, really hard.”

She and four remaining staff members are being reassigned to other 4Cs centers and will be able to keep their jobs, what she described as “the least of my problems.”

“We supply a valuable resource to the community,” she said, but now the preschool is “closed indefinitely.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas.

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