SF Examiner – Luck and grit: How one S.F. preschool battled the odds to purchase a permanent home
January 29, 2023
By Sydney Johnson – SF Examiner
What does it take to open a child care center in San Francisco? For one of The City’s newest preschools, the answer was six years, $10 million and unmeasurable persistence.
Today, there are only enough licensed child care slots to accommodate 15% of San Francisco infants. And for early educators looking to fill that gap, opening up new child care facilities can feel like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.
“If you don’t have your own stash of cash or deep pockets, it’s pretty impossible to say ‘I’m going to start a daycare,’” said Christina Maluenda Marchiel, co-director and teacher at Mission Kids, which opened its doors in January 2021.
San Francisco has made strides in improving a decades-
long deficit in affordable child care options through major investments, like a commercial rent tax for child care programming, passed by voters in 2018. Another is an impact fee developers must pay on residential and commercial projects, a fee that funds child care facility construction that has been used for more than a decade. The dollars have fueled a growing list of city-funded grants specifically for these projects.
San Francisco now has just over 1,000 licensed child care centers. Of those, about 650 are family in-home child care facilities and 350 are child care centers; together they have capacity for 26,194 children under 5.
Mission Kids enrolls about 70 children now and expects to increase that to 90 in the coming years. But it has been a long journey to get there.
Unlike commercial developers that may more easily obtain a loan from a bank, nonprofit child care facilities must scrape together funds from a mix of public dollars and nonstop fundraising.
Mission Kids is one example where all of those funding streams aligned at just the right time. After 15 years of moving around The City, the preschool is now able to call its current location at 969 Treat Ave. a permanent home.
“Gosh, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. A regular child care facility just can’t afford to lease on the open market,” said Maluenda Marchiel.
To cover the $9.9 million in land costs, construction, and other permits, leaders at the preschool applied for and received five different grants ranging from $230,000 to $2.5 million. They also raised $630,000 through a capital campaign and received a $2.6 million loan from the Low Income Investment Fund, a lender for essential but non-lucrative services such as child care.
The bilingual Spanish and English preschool is stunning even to an untrained eye. Brightly lit classrooms featuring miniature rock climbing walls, blocks and other toys support fine motor skill development. Plants and colorful banners hanging from ceilings create both a vibrant and inviting atmosphere. Craft supplies, instruments and costumes seamlessly integrate dramatic play and the arts into fun, everyday activities. Virtually every room has a bookshelf, plus cozy nooks for kids to claim.
“I am truly amazed and grateful The City has stepped up. The pandemic has shown what a grave crisis we are in and the deep need for child care in this city,” said Shruti Swamy, a parent of a 4-year-old at Mission Kids.
Securing grants and loans to pay for the space was only half the battle. Finding a building within budget at the right time when all the financing streams were aligned was just as complicated.
“If a developer comes in with cash, they win every time,” said Maluenda Marchiel, who first began running the daycare out of her apartment in 2007 with co-director Heather Lubeck.
As demand for spots increased, the home-based program outgrew its home-based location. So the two moved their business into a church space near South Van Ness for several years. It served as a homeless shelter at night when the kids left.
When the church lease ended, Lubeck and Maluenda Marchiel began investigating how they could make purchasing a space a reality. While the site at 696 Treat was being inspected and reconstructed to meet requirements for child care facilities, Mission Kids partnered with S.F. Parks and Recreation to share a playground space.
The Children’s Council of San Francisco, a child care advocacy and referral agency, helps people who want to open up their own preschools by offering training and assistance navigating the maze of funding opportunities and requirements.
Monique Woodford Breaux recently completed the Children’s Council pipeline program. But she says finding affordable spaces to open up her own practice has been one of the biggest barriers to moving forward.
“I’m not running it yet,” said Woodford Breaux, who grew up in San Francisco and now lives in Oakley. “I’m talking to other child care providers and churches and nonprofits who are interested in helping with activities or places where we could gather.”
Because many child care positions don’t require a specific degree and some
child care is exempt from licensing requirements, it is often a gateway opportunity to careers in education or child development.
Still, recruiting is no easy feat in child care, where about 94% of child care workers are women, and 40% are people of color, according to a 2022 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Education Trust.
The report highlights how child care workers are impacted by racist and sexist inequality. For example, Black child care workers earn an average of 78 cents less per hour than white colleagues with the same education level.
American child care workers on average make about $13 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In San Francisco, leaders are hoping to make the field more competitive by now raising wages at publicly funded preschools to at least $28 per hour with money raised through the commercial rent tax.
“It’s the hardest job you’ll ever do. It’s terribly low paying, it is not the most glamorous. Naturally, people tend to pursue other fields, often for no reason other than the financials,” said Maluenda Marchiel of Mission Kids.
Mission Kids is a cooperative, meaning that parents and guardians participate in operations, whether that’s teaching, cleaning, fundraising or building a reading loft for kids to climb up and enjoy a book.
In addition to cutting down on costs, the cooperative model also serves as a pipeline for full-time staff at the school. “It’s our biggest recruiting tool,” said Maluenda Marchiel of parents who decide they want to work in early education after participating in their child’s preschool.
While the extra funding streams have helped places like Mission Kids get started, many preschool teachers who are interested in opening up their own facilities are stymied by costs and competition for real estate.
But the need for more child care centers and staff who can look after infants is only growing more urgent, early educators say.
The City has an estimated 35,053 children under 5, according to 2021 U.S. Census data. The portion of young children in San Francisco has increased over the last decade, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
“Demand is trending younger and younger. We are already reconfiguring to expand our toddler program. The demand for that toddler program has continued to expand,” said Maluenda Marchiel. “As soon as we open our doors to infants, it will be in even higher