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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Cindy Rivera entered the family resource center in the Hillview neighborhood library at 10 a.m. and began transforming it. She replaced chairs and tables with furniture half the size, unfurled colorful round rugs, and unpacked boxes of books and blocks, clay and costumes, and math and science games.
At 11 a.m., she opened the door and greeted 13 children by name as they rushed inside, pulling a parent or grandparent by the hand behind them.
The library room is one of six "pop-up" preschools in Silicon Valley, so named because each is housed in a non-traditional school setting in the community. They are part of a national YMCA pilot program to provide free preschool programs for young children from low-income families.
"A lot of these families here can't afford preschool and so being able to bring it to them in their community, in their neighborhood, where they would never be exposed to something like this is so valuable for them," Rivera said.
In Silicon Valley, some 50,000 children under 5 are from low-income families, according to a 2016 analysis by the Urban Institute. "Low income" is a federal designation given to families with two adults and two children earning $24,036 or less a year.
Such children are more likely to have immigrant parents and are significantly less likely to attend preschool than higher-income peers. The U.S. Department of Education found that 60 percent of the nation's 4 million 4-year-olds lack access to publicly funded preschool. Because children's brains develop fastest from birth to age 5, a lack of high-quality preschool puts kids at risk of starting kindergarten behind classmates.
"Even though they're playing with Play-Doh, we can talk about colors," Rivera said. Playing with blocks is an opportunity to talk about numbers. "We encourage the caregivers to ask a lot of questions. How many blocks does it take to build that?"
Pop-up preschool was an almost instant hit at Hillview. Two weeks after it opened, the session was full with 15 children and their parents or grandparents, and had a waiting list.
"This is what I was looking for," said Lillian Agard, grandmother to 3-year-old Siena. Preschool would be too expensive otherwise, she said.
Program costs vary from site to site but average about $625 per child for two days of instruction per week for 38 weeks, including snacks, according to the YMCA. Each local branch raises its own funds through an annual campaign.
Agard, who takes care of Siena while her parents work, heard about the pop-up program while visiting the library for story time. "I'm always looking into things that are educational and that will help her," Agard said.
The YMCA runs 104 pop-up preschools in 27 states, serving nearly 1,900 children. Families must register in advance and attend regularly to get the full benefits.
Each program is held in the same location, with the same teacher, and on the same two days during the school year. In Silicon Valley, the six preschools will pop up again during the week of Sept. 5.
Selected sites are within walking distance for most neighborhood families. In addition to libraries, schools and churches, public housing and local YMCA centers are also popular. One Southern California program is held in a park; in Hawaii, preschools pop up on the beach.
Although the Y's program is believed to be the largest in the country, there are a few smaller efforts to bring preschool to isolated families. The Y modeled its program on Hawaii's Tutu and Me. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, it sends teams of preschool teachers into rural communities to support Native Hawaiian grandparents - tutus- who are raising their grandchildren through learning activities that honor cultural values.
In Colorado, a program funded by the Aspen Community Foundation takes the idea of a moveable preschool quite literally with Gus the Bus. It's one of two school buses transformed into preschool classrooms that travel to remote ranching towns.
Parents and grandparents in the YMCA pop-up programs report that their children and grandchildren know more numbers and words, are confident and interested in learning, and show greater perseverance when learning something difficult, according to a national YMCA evaluation.
Carl Estonilo comes to the Hillview preschool with his 5-year-old grandson, Clausen. "Everything that he learned here he's applying at the home," Estonilo said. "If you say something the wrong way, he corrects you right away. 'That's not the right way; Miss Cindy say this way, not that way.'"
Clausen is so eager, he lays out his clothes the night before, Estonilo said. "Reminding me: 'Ay papa, not too much TV; remember Thursday and Friday I have school.'"
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
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