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Evan Chou, a preschool student at Land School in Westminster, shows off a wooden block with see-through film that he's working with as part of a class art project.

Los Angeles County faces a critical shortage of access to early childcare education that threatens to keep its neediest families in a cycle of poverty.

That was the message championed by about 100 parents, educators, lawmakers and community activists who gathered at a conference in downtown Los Angeles Friday.

The event at Magnolia Place Family Center, titled “Early Learning Needs In L.A. County,” was organized by the Advancement Project, a Los Angeles-based civil rights and advocacy organization.

The conference included roundtable conversations with parent leaders, addresses from local and state lawmakers, and strategy sessions on how to improve early learning in L.A. County.

“We know that when it comes to highest needs kids, nothing combats poverty, nothing combats inequality like early childhood education,” John Kim, executive director for the Advancement Project, told the audience.

The organization last year released a report that found that there are spots for just 2.4 percent of infants and toddlers and about 41.3 percent of preschool-aged children in licensed centers in California’s most populous county. The number of spaces varied widely by community, but the shortage was greater in areas with higher numbers of low-income, Latino and African-American families, according to the report.

Programs that are available often cost $1,200 or more annually, pricing out most families living in those communities.

“We know that when it comes to highest needs kids, nothing combats poverty, nothing combats inequality like early childhood education,” said John Kim, executive director for the Advancement Project.

Supporters of early childhood education have said that licensed centers in high-need communities lead to fewer students dropping out, higher graduation rates, and higher rates of students succeeding in college and careers.

Speakers urged Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature to increase the state’s investment in early childhood education programs across California.

“The governor does a great job of finding ways to save money, and setting up rainy day funds. But where is it raining on more right now than on families without access to quality programs?” said state Assembly Floor Leader Chris Holden, D-Pasadena.

Mireya Casillas, a parent in nearby Huntington Park, shared her experience of teaching her daughter some reading and writing skills at home before she started preschool.

Casillas said that it became immediately clear when her daughter started preschool and kindergarten that she was far more advanced than her classmates, who had received little or no formal early education.

“It was very frustrating. Teachers in the early grades often spend most of their time helping students learn very basic skills,” she said.

Los Angeles Unified School Board President Steve Zimmer added, “We understand that the equity mission starts with our youngest children… We need to do more to establish that foundation with high quality early education available to every child.”

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