Roxana Perez fretted about her painfully shy daughter Jocelyn and how difficult the 4-year-old might find kindergarten this year.
So the 30-year-old Santa Ana homemaker, who lives in an affordable housing complex called Warwick Square, took Jocelyn to its fitness center and signed her up for an ambitious kindergarten preparatory program.
As California contemplates offering optional preschool for its 1 million pre-kindergarten-age children, Warwick Square's unusual setup underscores one of the biggest challenges for so ambitious a plan: finding space in already crowded districts like Santa Ana's.
Many of the schools in the 62,000-student district are already on year-round schedules to accommodate more students than they were designed to hold. The limited number of preschools Santa Ana does offer are squeezed into campus facilities after hours, in what are called "twilight" programs.
The Warwick Square project -- in its first year and the only one of its kind in Orange County -- brings pre-kindergarten instruction to the children. School officials hope it can be duplicated in other parts of Santa Ana.
The Warwick program is a collaboration between the Santa Ana Unified School District, the owners of Warwick Square and Project Access, an Orange County nonprofit organization that helps combine resources from agencies. It is funded with $160,000 of Proposition 10 money, the cigarette surcharge approved by voters in 1998.
California's public preschools serve only low-income families and are financed by a patchwork of sources, including Proposition 10, state grants and Head Start, the federal school-readiness program.
In an era when both parents in many families work, about 70% of California children under 5 are cared for by a non-family member. State education officials, however, say that in many cases, it amounts to little more than baby-sitting.
Given mounting research showing that crucial brain development takes place in early childhood, and that performance standards are demanding ever higher academic achievement, educators say a rigorous preschool head start is crucial.
In fact, proposed legislation unveiled in Sacramento last month recommended providing preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old in the state, paid for as kindergarten is now. But with the state facing a $30-billion budget deficit, a new $5-billion program is unlikely.
The need is there, however, especially in communities with many poor immigrant families, said Al Mijares, who as superintendent of Santa Ana Unified recently proposed adding a second year of kindergarten to help speakers of limited English catch up. The lack of preparation means many children are hopelessly behind by the time they reach middle and high school.
"They need the structure of a formal education," Mijares said.
Of the nearly half-million students who start kindergarten annually in California public schools, nearly 40% speak limited English and less than a quarter of the 2.5 million children under 5 are enrolled in child-care certified by public agencies, according to a state agency. (Preparing children for kindergarten is not required for child-care certification.) Even among those certified programs, officials say, it is unclear how many really help prepare children for kindergarten, where they are expected to know basics such as shapes, colors, numbers and symbols.
In Santa Ana, only about a third of the more than 5,700 children entering kindergarten this year will have received preschool instruction, said Nydia Hernandez, the district's pre-kindergarten program coordinator, who visits Warwick Square regularly. That's up from less than 10% before Proposition 10 made more funds available.
"If there is anything that is going to make a difference, it is to start early," Hernandez said.
The 36 children enrolled in Warwick Square's two classes have made considerable progress, their parents said.
"She used to be very, very shy," said Perez as she dropped Jocelyn off on a recent morning. "Now she's active, confident. She's ready for kindergarten."
Inside the former exercise room, about the size of two average living rooms, children were learning rudimentary skills, such as flipping pages in a book from left to right.
They also learn social skills.
"I'm an octopus," said Jocelyn, wearing a paper crown with a menacing drawing of the sea creature. She had lined up classmates in a single file and began leading a game the group learned just a few weeks ago.
"Come and play with me," she said to a boy wearing a shrimp crown. Behind him, others' hats also depicted sea creatures.
"No, no," the boy said, giggling. "You will eat me with your big teeth." He handed his hat to Jocelyn, who promptly moved on to her next victim.
Many children in the class didn't speak a word of English when they started, said Hernandez, watching from a distance.
"You know," she said, "the paycheck is important, but this -- this is what does it for me."