In the isolated desert town of Lake Los Angeles, Maria Olegine visits one home after another, bringing life-changing information to mothers and their young children.
In one home last month, she greeted 11-month-old Angie Rios with wide smiles and high fives. "Helloooo Angie! Cinco, five!"
She gave Angie a fabric house, a toy horse and bright stackable plastic donuts, keeping up a running patter of vocabulary and complete sentences.
"This is a little house. Tengo un caballo. I have a little horsey!"
Angie's mother, Maria Delfina Zuniga, said Olegine's lessons on how to develop her child's vocabulary and motor skills through daily reading and play have made a big difference. Angie has already mastered several words — far ahead of her older children when they were at that age — children she did not regularly read to before kindergarten.
Such information may be pro forma for parents who know to fill their home with music and books, frequently read to their children even before birth and pore over baby-raising bibles like "What to Expect When You're Expecting." But such practices are far less common in places like Lake Los Angeles in the greater Antelope Valley, where half the 12,000 residents are Latinos, many Spanish-speaking, and a quarter live in poverty.
Yet decades of research show that what children learn between birth and 5 years old makes a major difference in their ability to perform well academically later in life. According to the U.S. Department of Education, children's language skills by age 2 are predictive of their pre-literacy skills at age 5, and low-income students start school up to 14 months behind their more affluent peers. Children who attend high-quality preschool programs are less likely to need special education services, be retained in their grades or drop out of high school.
As pressure mounts to boost academic skills, especially for low-income and minority students, President Obama has pledged a $1-billion investment in early childhood education — funding, among other things, home-visit specialists such as Olegine. Last year, Congress moved to shore up access to preschool with a four-year grant program that awarded 18 states money to serve an additional 33,000 4-year-olds.
California has begun to restore its childcare and preschool programs after $1 billion in cuts following the 2008 recession. Over the last three years, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have reinvested more than $400 million into the programs, including 11,500 seats in the California State Preschool Program serving 3- and 4-year-olds.
But early education advocates say that much more is needed to reach the commitment Brown and the Legislature made last year to provide preschool for all low-income 4-year-olds. Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy organization, said 30,000 more seats are needed and called Brown's revised budget "distressingly minimal."
Overall, 71% of California's 516,595 4-year-olds still were not enrolled in publicly funded preschools, compared with just 39% in New York, 38% in Texas and 59% in Illinois, according to a 2013 survey by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
"There is a great and profound need," said Kim Pattillo Brownson of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. "Without access to early education subsidies by the state, children without other options won't be able to begin the K-12 system prepared to learn."
The squeeze has hit Los Angeles Unified, where officials are moving to eliminate a popular preschool program. The School Readiness Language Development Program, which serves 11,000 children in 23 schools, will be cut by 45% next year and shut down after that because the district can't afford the $36.6 million annually needed to run it, officials have announced. The proposal has provoked widespread protests, including more than 8,000 parent letters, and district efforts to find alternatives.
Blaire Lennane, a parent of a Dorris Place Elementary student, said the program kept her now third-grade daughter at the school rather than choosing independent public charter campuses. During a recent visit, 16 4-year-olds were calm and attentive in the brightly colored classroom as they practiced blending their consonants, recognizing sounds and finding words in a sentence.
"If we had the money, I would definitely keep it," said Maureen Diekmann, director of the district's early childhood programs. "Preschool of any kind really sets kids up for learning."
In remote places like Lake Los Angeles, however, preschools are few and far between. So organizations such as Save the Children, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, seek to train parents to be their child's first teacher. In California, the organization serves nearly 10,000 children in five counties with programs ranging from prenatal care to middle school literacy.
The bilingual Olegine reflects the organization's approach of hiring people from the community who can gain trust to enter homes and at times upend traditional child-rearing practices.
Maria Luviano, 34, said Olegine's help has transformed her entire family. She said she never read to her children or sent them to preschool, assuming teachers would take care of their education when they began kindergarten. But when Olegine began working with Luviano's youngest child, Angela, at 13 months, she noticed she was lagging in her language development. She arranged an assessment and began showing Luviano how to work with her child.
The Spanish-speaking Luviano said she initially lacked confidence that she could teach her children, especially with English-language books. But Olegine taught her to flip through the books anyway, discussing the pictures, inventing her own stories. She stressed the need to speak in complete sentences.
"If she says 'cookie,' say 'I want a cookie,' " Olegine told Luviano.
The learning activities became a family affair. The parents began buying educational toys — a brightly colored shape sorter to help Angela develop motor skills and learn colors and shapes. Angela's father, Jesus, dressed up in costumes and acted out stories. Sofia, 8, went from Bs and Cs to As in English. And 5-year-old Jesus Rafael's hyperactivity calmed down, Luviano said.
The latest assessment from state disability specialists last month found that Angela, now 2, is on track and would not need speech therapy.
"What you and your husband are doing," Olegine told her, "is making a big difference."