Ivette Hernandez wanted to make sure her 5-year-old was ready for kindergarten. But enrolling her daughter in a quality preschool proved to be harder than expected.

Unable to pay private preschool tuition that exceeded her monthly rent, Hernandez and her husband, Jose, sought out programs for low-income families.

But with so many in need they encountered denial after denial, because they live beyond the school's attendance zone or because there was no room. One program rejected them because they receive no government child-care assistance.

"I didn't want Camila to go to kindergarten cold turkey because I knew she would struggle," Hernandez says. "But I had pretty much given up hope."

For the second consecutive year, Arizona ranks second-worst in the nation on an indicator that predicts educational and economic success - preschool participation for 3- and 4-year-olds. More than two of every three kids here miss out on the early education that readies them for school.

"There's obviously a cycle of poverty that exists when people can't get what they need and they can't get the education they need," says Lisette DeMars, a coordinator for First Things First, which works to increase access to quality and affordable early care and education in Arizona.

Children exposed to high-quality learning in their first five years are 80 percent more likely to graduate high school, 70 percent less likely to commit a violent crime by age 18 and 40 percent less likely to be held back a grade, First Things First statistics show.

the cost of quality

"Before, kindergarten was seen as a place to socialize, to learn how to follow rules and to get in line," says John Pedicone, a longtime educator and the former superintendent of Tucson's largest school district. "That's not the case anymore. It's an academic experience, and we need to make sure that all students are prepared.

"Preschool is not just important, it's critical."

The lack of a strong foundation creates an achievement gap that is immediately obvious and is tough to close. Students who don't catch up by the third grade are more likely to drop out, end up in minimum-wage jobs and collect welfare.

But high-quality preschool in Tucson tends to come at a high cost - more than $6,500 annually. As a result, unlicensed, unaccredited centers are common, says Tony Penn, president and CEO of the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona.

"All children should have access to high-quality child care no matter where they live and no matter what their socioeconomic condition," Penn says.

qualified teachers

Quality preschools have teachers with degrees in early-childhood education. They have a curriculum focused on literacy, developmentally appropriate materials and engaging learning environments. Those things are expensive, and the costs are passed along to parents.

Parents who cannot afford to pay choose day-care centers or preschools whose teachers lack professional qualifications. In a survey of 4,500 early-childhood educators in Pima County, just 20 percent of teachers and 10 percent of assistants held bachelor's degrees.

The typical child-care worker's pay in Arizona is comparable to that of a parking-lot attendant or a fast-food worker.

"It's pretty horrific to think that we pay these people to prepare our workforce as much as we pay people to take tickets for cars," says Maggie Shafer, who until recently oversaw the Tucson Unified School District's preschools, elementary schools and K-8 schools.

help at home

Just as important as the classroom experience is what happens at home.

By age 3, children in low-income families hear 30 million fewer words than those whose parents are professionals, a University of Kansas study found. Building vocabulary is essential for reading success and cognitive development.

Hernandez, a high school graduate, does not consider herself a teacher, but she and her husband have done their best to work with their daughter - counting and sorting Cheerios, reading to her often and identifying colors. They tried to get her to write her name, but she showed little interest.

A couple of months into the last school year, Hernandez received a letter from TUSD about its HIPPY program - Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters.

The program, geared toward low-income families, sends someone trained in childhood development into the home to share lessons that can be taught over the course of a week. The parent then teaches the lesson independently.

"The program was good for her because it made her excited for school," Hernandez says. "She wants us to read to her a lot more. She likes to cut and glue and color. Writing her name has become a really big deal."

a national effort

President Obama's "Preschool for All" initiative aims to improve quality of early-childhood education and expand access to low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds.

Locally, First Things First has the same goal. Nearly 200 licensed providers are participating in a quality-improvement program.

In 2000, about 170 children attended local early-childhood programs actively trying to improve quality. Now it's more than 7,000.

The United Way has also helped dozens of programs earn accreditation and was awarded a grant through First Things First to coach early-childhood educators on best practices. Participating centers receive money for professional development or for resources to boost quality.

Through First Things First, teachers can get scholarships to pursue higher education. Those who stay at the same centers after graduation can earn financial rewards.

The program also offers scholarships for children to attend programs that are improving.

TUSD emphasizes quality through its PACE program, which uses certified teachers -with pay starting at about $33,000 - to serve students who live in poverty and have low school readiness. The federal program reaches roughly 400 students a year with a waiting list of about 200. The district has 4,200-plus kindergartners.

"The problem is huge," United Way's Penn says. "It's one we are barely - even with our efforts - scratching the surface on."

Studies have shown a return of $7 or more on each dollar invested in early-childhood education through reduced need for remedial education and grade repetition, as well as increased productivity and earnings in adulthood.

"For those detractors who don't believe in high taxes for social programs, ultimately everyone winds up paying," says Shafer, formerly of TUSD. "What everyone has to understand is, this is not a handout. It's a step toward a healthier and more economically thriving community."

Fast fact

• 90 percent of a child's brain develops before the age of five. Eighty percent of that development happens by age three.

What quality looks like

Here are things you might see in a high-quality early-childhood classroom:

• A print-rich environment connecting pictures and words.

• Children who are encouraged to build things and to tell a story about what they are building.

• Singing to develop language

• Gross motor and fine motor activities.

• Complex stories with complex plots and character development.

• Teachers asking challenging questions about literature to build comprehension.

• Counting, creating sets, sorting.

• Creative play and pretending.

• Problem solving.

• Art.

"For those detractors who don't believe in high taxes for social programs, ultimately everyone winds up paying. What everyone has to understand is, this is not a handout. It's a step toward a healthier and more economically thriving community."

Maggie Shafer, who until recently oversaw TUSD's preschools, elementary schools and K-8 schools

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175.