Feeding the Youngest Minds: Another Major Donor Steps Up for Early Education

Photo: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Photo: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

There’s endless talk about educational disparities at the elementary, high school and college levels. But evidence shows that the problems start even before kindergarten. Kids who attend preschool do better in later school years, but such early learning programs are not universally available in the U.S. In 2016, about 58 percent of three-year-olds and 34 percent of four-year-olds were not enrolled in preprimary programs. Cost is a central reason: These programs are expensive, and families in lower income brackets can’t afford them. The result is that the kids who often need the most extra help are the least likely to get it.

Yet in recent years, as we’ve been reporting, more philanthropic funders have been moving into the space. Most dramatically, Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos recently announced a major new initiative to create Montessori preschools around the nation.

The Bezoses are an unusual example of philanthropists who are tackling this challenge nationally. Most of the funding action on early learning is playing out at the local level, with a growing array of grantmakers getting involved or ramping up existing work.

The latest example comes from San Diego, where earlier this month, the San Diego Foundation and local philanthropist Guy Clum announced a $13.8 million gift that will focus on strengthening early childhood education opportunities in the city. In 2014, more than 38 percent of children in San Diego aged three to five were not enrolled in preschool or kindergarten.

Bang for the Buck

More donors have been drawn to early education as mounting evidence shows the importance of intervening in the first five years of children’s lives. In fact, this may be the most promising time for donor-backed efforts to make a difference on education. Kids’ brains are developing incredibly quickly during those years, and early education feeds their natural desire to learn. These programs, when they’re effectively designed, provide students with foundational learning experiences in areas such as language and socialization that prepare them for elementary education. Early education programs also a play a vital role in the lives of parents with young children. They provide child care services while parents work.

“Early childhood education is essential to the health, development and future success of San Diego youth and the regional economy,” Katie Rast, director of community impact at TSDF, tells Inside Philanthropy. She said that the new funding will advance a “vision that supports both immediate impact initiatives and systems-level change in early education.”

Guy Clum, who was the president of Power-Sonic Corporation, a battery manufacturer, for more than 40 years, is another donor who’s sold on the value of early education. He said of his gift, “A child’s early years are the foundation for his or her future development. By strengthening the systems and opportunities that our children are afforded, my hope is that we can put every San Diegan on a pathway to success and grow a more vibrant region for all.”

Which Programs are Clum and the SDF Backing?

An initial $3.8 million will go to four local organizations. It will, in part, fund further research that will help to direct the other $10 million. Here are the first gift recipients:

  • San Diego Workforce Partnership, which works to empower local job seekers and creates in-depth industry reports, to research and identify early childhood education challenges and opportunities in San Diego. Peter Callstrom, president and CEO, said, “Income mobility and opportunity can be influenced by early childhood factors, impacting a child’s performance in school and earning potential for a lifetime.”

  • SAY San Diego, a nonprofit serving local individuals and families in a variety of ways, for the development of a workplace-based early childhood education center at its new office in Kearny Mesa that will provide sliding-scale services. According to the organization, “The center will also be a model for local employers, to inform and encourage them to develop child care centers at their own workplaces.”

  • South Bay Community Services’ Mi Escuelita Therapeutic Preschool, which serves young victims of domestic violence, to expand its classroom space and decrease its waitlist.

  • Educational Enrichment Systems, a nonprofit with multiple early childhood education centers in San Diego County, for a new full-day, year-round preschool, also lightening its waitlist and allowing it to hire more staff.

The San Diego Foundation typically supports age-friendly communities, civic engagement, climate, arts, the outdoors, science and technology, and families and community. As we’ve reported, most of its competitive grantmaking opportunities are offered through its regional affiliate program. In 2017, it awarded 5,686 grants to 1,714 nonprofits, giving almost $51 million.