A little over three and a half years ago, freelancer Sascha Guinn Anderson and her family moved to New Mexico from the state of New York. Her family’s decision to move here was not based on a business or tax incentive, but rather, was based on the promise of a public, Pre-Kindergarten early learning program (PreK) for their children. “In New York, basically you buy your way into PreK,” said Anderson. She explained the inequitable and lengthy process of securing a spot: Beginning at age two, families often pay for their children to enter expensive, private, early childhood programs in order to later be grandfathered into neighboring, public, PreK programs for three and four-year-olds. Anderson recalls mounting pressure to register her two-year-old in an expensive, early learning program. That’s when she and her partner decided to move to New Mexico.
Now, Anderson lives in Santa Fe where she continues her work as a freelancer. Her husband is a meat buyer for Whole Foods and together, they have three girls, one dog, and three chickens. An outdoor adventurer and math enthusiast, Winnie, 6, is their oldest child. Georgie, who recently turned 4, is their “strong-willed” garden helper who loves to change clothes multiple times a day. “She’s really into fashion right now,” says Anderson with a laugh. Hilde, not yet 1, is a “delightful and kind baby.”
Together, the Anderson family has navigated New Mexico Pre-K alongside an online community of Santa Fe Parents. In Santa Fe and throughout the state, PreK is technically open for all families to apply. The catch is, there are limited seats available to families, forcing a lottery system. Families who are fortunate enough to have their children chosen to attend PreK have access to the educational services for free. Others are placed onto waitlists. In either case, the process of finding out the results can ongoingly stressful.
Winnie was the first in the Anderson family to register for PreK in New Mexico, her first year “whipping” through the lottery for Tesuque PreK, in what is considered a “full-day” program that lasts from 8am-3pm. Housed in a Title I, 99% free and reduced lunch school, Anderson recalls Tesuque providing a hands-on, play-based setting for learning, where students were able to access earth science classes at least once a week. “Her teacher was truly an outstanding educator. She had a real understanding of children and how they learn,” said Anderson, reflecting on lessons in best practice, passed down from her grandmother, a professor in Early Childhood Education.
Their family’s experience with the lottery system this year was completely different. The Anderson’s applied for a PreK spot and waited in anticipation like other families across the state. The results of the lottery drawing were advertized to be posted at 8:00 pm. 7:55 pm came and the Anderson’s sat at their phone, eagerly refreshing their web page and keeping a close eye on the Santa Fe PreK Parent group online. 8:00 pm struck and they hurriedly refreshed the New Mexico PreK page. Nothing. 8:30 pm came- another refresh, and still, no answers. 9:00 pm, nothing. By that time, the online PreK parent thread was blowing up. 11:00 am the next morning? Nothing.
This process went on for nearly a month, with one robocall and two emails in between explaining that the PreK program was waiting on funding from the PED. The Anderson’s were fortunate enough to secure a spot in public PreK again this year. For other parents, however, the extended wait time to find out whether their child had a place in public PreK forced families to lose out on spots within private PreK, had they enough funds to afford a spot there.
For the Anderson family, cobbling together childcare for the rest of their family is a hardship. Georgie, who just missed the birthday cut-off for public PreK this year, goes to a private PreK facility two times a week, and free church program the other three days. Their family makes just over the income threshold required for CYFD funded programs, which limits them to expensive childcare programs. “Some might consider these little problems,” said Anderson, noting the lengthy and inequitable lottery process “but it points to a larger issue. The quality is incredible, it’s the process that’s inaccessible.”
Nevertheless, Anderson stays an advocate for quality and equitable PreK in New Mexico. “You can really see what a difference PreK makes. Even within two months, it’s amazing how much [Georgie has] grown both socially and emotionally. She is able to express her feelings and is able to recognize letters and that letters make sounds.” She notes, specifically, the concepts are developed organically, through play-based learning with her child, not through worksheets. “It’s the best experience we could have had. Especially for fostering a lifelong love of learning in our children.”
Hope for a more accessible PreK program in New Mexico rests in upcoming legislative sessions, and now, in the Department of Early Childhood Learning- a department that was created by the Governor and the New Mexico Legislature during the 2019 Legislative Session.
While the Department has yet to add any additional PreK seats for children, it does have the unique opportunity to end the anxiety-ridden lottery system for families. The Governor ran on a promise of Universal PreK: the assurance that all three and four-year-olds will have access to a PreK program that is funded through our state. Now, she has the opportunity to deliver.
So many New Mexico parents lose sleep at night, asking themselves whether their child will have a seat in a high-quality PreK program, or whether their children will start school further behind their peers? We all agree what the answer to this question should be; Now let’s make it happen.