Napa Valley Early Learning Initiative

Parents and young children are benefiting from the Napa Valley Early Learning Initiative, but if additional funding isn't found in time for next year, the program could fold.

Photo by Bob McClanahan

As a new school year gets underway, a years-long push to better prepare kindergartners in “high-need” areas across Napa Valley for their first year of school is being lauded as a success. But, the new year also marks a turning point for the effort, known as the Napa Valley Early Learning Initiative; one that could put its progress at peril.

Since 2012, the initiative, a sweeping, multi-agency undertaking founded and backed by the Napa Valley Vintners, has worked to bridge a gap in academic achievement between English-learning 3-to-5-year-olds and their English-fluent peers.

To do this, the initiative combines a cast of community agencies, offering their services under one banner to students and families at four schools throughout the valley, in areas with high concentrations of low-income families and English language learners: Napa Junction Elementary in American Canyon, Shearer and Phillips Elementary schools in the city of Napa, and Calistoga Elementary. Devised by the Vintners as a pilot program of sorts, the initiative has lived on funding from the group to the tune of up to $1 million each year for the five years of its existence.

And while teachers and parents at the four schools, as well as the results of a school readiness assessment of county kindergartners last year, all credit the initiative for significant progress in students’ preparedness, the effort today is at a crossroads. This school year marks the final year of the pilot period, after which the allotted funding from the Vintners will end, as planned, shifting the question of support to other backers. However, as of now, those future sources of funding have yet to be found.

“We want to see some buy-in from the rest of the community,” said Becky Peterson, Member and Community Relations Director with the Napa Valley Vintners. “Is there the will to continue doing it, or to expand it among more than just us?”

Whether the will exists and is enough to secure the funds to further its efforts or not, advocates say the initiative’s work is far from over.

“We didn’t wipe out the need, unfortunately, during this five years,” said Michelle Laymon, program officer for the Early Learning Initiative. “There’s still an achievement gap and as long as there are children that are entering school with a second language other than English as their primary language, then they’re going to continue to have a bit of a gap. So that hasn’t gone away.”

Offered among the initiative’s web of services are openings at high-quality preschools for English-learning students, as well as transition programs for new kindergartners with little to no preschooling. According to the school readiness assessment of 266 Napa students conducted last school year by social research firm Applied Survey Research as part of an overall Kindergarten Readiness Report, children who had attended preschool scored higher in the metric for kindergarten readiness than those who had not.

“Those spots for preschool, it’s so essential, especially in this community, that we have that,” said Paty Infante, a kindergarten teacher at Phillips Elementary School. “We’ve seen such a difference in these last years of increased kids coming in with more abilities. It’s not just blank.”

Those honed abilities include not only a better grasp on English, but also social skills, which teachers say hasten the time it takes to establish classroom routines and rules.

“A lot of the kids who struggle are kids who come in not really knowing any English, or very little English,” said Tianna Young, another kindergarten teacher at Phillips. “So the kids that are able to go to the preschool program have that full year of practicing their English before they start learning in the classroom, which is huge.”

Through the initiative, Phillips is slated to expand its on-site preschool this year, doubling the number of available slots from the existing 44 today. Open slots will also be extended to 3-year-olds, who will have access to an extra year of preschool.

In addition to the initiative’s offering of more preschool spots, teachers also cite family involvement and parent education as being equally vital to achieving the desired levels of student readiness.

Speaking last week at Shearer Elementary School in Napa, Maria Fernandez, 35, explained how her eldest son had struggled in kindergarten and had not attended preschool. Spurred by issues with her son’s behavior, Fernandez eventually attended a class on effective parenting offered through Parent University, one of the initiative’s partners. While the program had already existed in Napa County elementary schools, offering more than 100 classes for parents of children in higher grades, a component for parents of preschool children was also added through the initiative.

Sonia Ochoa, a coordinator for Parent University, translated for Fernandez, who is a native of Michoacan, Mexico and speaks only Spanish.

Having taken other classes as well, Fernandez said she “felt more connected to the school once she started attending the classes. Before that, it was just dropping off the kids and you don’t feel connected. You’d go home, leave them and that’s it. But once you start taking the classes, you feel more connected and you start getting to know other parents.”

One of those other parents is Alejandra Perez, 29, also of Michoacan, who spoke alongside Fernandez at Shearer last week. After her eldest daughter was accepted to one of the open preschool slots, Perez began volunteering at the preschool and, like Fernandez, took classes through Parent University.

Ochoa also translated for Perez, who said she feels “that it’s important for her kids, or the kids in general to have, to see, the presence of the parents here, because it helps them get motivated and know that they can reach their goals and that their parents are here supporting the school.”

Perez, who completed only elementary school in Mexico, the equivalent of sixth grade in the United States, said she also plans to begin taking English classes at Shearer, because she “wants to learn so she can help her daughters,” Ochoa translated. “Because when it comes to homework, they’re going to ask questions and she’s not going to know what it’s saying on the homework.”

Fernandez, who went to high school but did not complete it, is today taking GED classes offered at Phillips and has taken two of the five tests en route to earning her credential, so that she “can have an opportunity of a better job in the future,” she said.

Among the recommendations made in the Kindergarten Readiness Report from Applied Survey Research was the continued push for engagement from parents like Fernandez and Perez in initiative programs and parent education, both of which were linked to higher readiness scores in kindergartners.

Teachers also echoed the sentiment, with Young noting that “it comes down to the parents. It’s because they’re [students] not going to preschool without the parents putting them there.”

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Infante further expressed that, because of the initiative, “Parents have something. Like we’ve been giving parents some information, some power.”

But as the initiative’s work persists, with preschool numbers rising and more parents becoming involved, still looming is the question of funding and how to maintain the efforts after the end of the current school year.

Thus far a leadership team composed partly of service providers with the initiative and grant review committee members from the Vintners, along with beneficiaries such as the county Office of Education and the Napa Valley Unified School District, has been assembled to pursue possible sources of funding. And while a set of potential backers has not yet been identified, Peterson pointed to foundations with interests in education and without a current presence in Napa as possible marks.

Until now the initiative also has not sought funding from the county, Peterson said. “We’ll certainly be doing that.” Ultimately, however, permanent support from an entity like the state would be ideal, she noted.

Helping to add clout to the program’s pitch to prospective supporters will be evaluations, such as the Kindergarten Readiness Report, illustrating the initiative’s success. “We can leverage the money that we’re willing to continue with and leverage the results that we’ve already received to show this is something that already works, so it’s not a huge risk,” Peterson said.

The nature of the initiative itself may also be a boon when taken in front of investors. “This kind of collaborative approach has a lot of appeal to some funders,” Peterson pointed out. “A lot of different agencies are working together to make something happen.”

But Peterson also acknowledged the lengthy timeline that could accompany the search for funders. “We know there may be some little bumps here,” she added, “but we’re going to do our best to make sure that the services don’t stop while we’re trying to get other people together.”

For now, the search for support commences while the school year edges on and the last round of originally slated funding is put to work, helping for the time being, to improve the futures of as many of Napa’s youngest students as possible.

“In Napa, there’s a lot of haves and have nots, and we have to try to bridge that gap somehow, someway,” Infante said. “And these kiddos are at least getting some kind of an opportunity to have a standing chance when they come into school.”

“We know there may be some little bumps here,” she added, “but we’re going to do our best to make sure that the services don’t stop while we’re trying to get other people together.” — Becky Peterson, Napa Valley Vintners Community Relations Director
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Henry Lutz covers the local wine industry. He has been a reporter and copy editor for the Register since 2016.