In 1998, when the voters of California passed Proposition 10, they made a choice: to increase taxes on cigarettes and earmark the additional revenue for early childhood education.
Ten years down the road, one manifestation of the Prop. 10 legacy is a modest home on Blossom Lane in Redondo Beach, its only distinguishing factor a tiny sign in the yard.
This is Kidz R Me, a preschool and daycare center hand-picked by Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) – a non-profit organization funded through Proposition 10 – to receive tax dollars set aside for child development.
Kidz R Me was operating well before Proposition 10 and LAUP, but now has the capacity to offers its service to low-income families.
Rhonda-Marie Tuivai started this business in 1993 because she was passionate about providing children whose parents worked with extra doses of love and attention. As a single mother to two daughters, she worked fulltime, but found that her bosses were intolerant anytime she felt she had to prioritize her children.
She compromised, and applied for a license to run a childcare facility in her home.
“To give up your home, you do have to be passionate,” Tuivai said this month, and laughed. Now, two decades later, her home still doubles as a daycare and preschool.
“I feel like now, all the hard work has paid off,” Tuivai said as she sat in her home office, its walls plastered with pictures of, and Christmas cards from, the families she’s worked with over the years.
“People never really took us seriously, even though we were providing a high quality of education. After this many years of being called a babysitter, to be part of LAUP was a promotion for me. We really don’t have high-quality preschools for low-income people in the Beach Cities. People don’t even know about things like this.”
Several years ago, a woman met Tuivai at a conference and took an immediate liking to what she was doing in her Redondo Beach neighborhood.
“She said, ‘How did you learn to do all this?’ I told her that I call it my gift from God because there’s no way I can do this. She said, ‘LAUP needs someone like you,’” Tuivai remembers proudly. “I went straight to my room and dropped on my knees.”
Now, she runs two classes daily – in the morning and afternoon – attended by a total of 16 kids. She receives $420 per month per child from LAUP, and as per LAUP requirements, charges parents $90 per month.
“The idea is if they have to put in something, they’ll care more,” Tuivai said of the $90 fee.
She also runs workshops for parents to teach them about proper discipline, child development, and nutrition, for example. She hosts fundraisers, organizes plays and events, and runs a full cap-and-gown ceremony at the end of the school year.
“These kids feel like part of my family when they’re here,” she said. “I don’t just have a ‘pick-up and drop-off relationship’ with their parents. They trust me.”
She works hard to earn that trust by being actively involved in each child’s life and learning.
Tuivai instructs her staff to use a certain tone of voice and to pay careful attention to Kidz R Me students. They are to use “tier two words” – vocabulary-expanding language – and to be specific and descriptive in giving their kids compliments and affirmation.
When a child asks her why the sun rises, for example, Tuivai won’t immediately answer.
“I want them to think on their own. I say, ‘You tell me why,’ and we have a conversation about it,” she said. “I want them to build on that. That’s a hands-down more effective way of learning than rote memorization.”
All toys, books, and educational materials are “intentional” – differently-shaped blocks, for example, will appear the week a lesson about shapes and sizes is being taught.
At Kidz R Me, Tuivai said, teaching kids to be self-confident is the ultimate goal.
“We want those kids to walk into school confident,” Tuivai said. “Not one child we teach here is fazed going into that environment. They walk in, and they’re not even fazed, because here they’re getting those hugs and high-fives, and they’re being taught to be self-confident.”
Tuivai and her staff focus on a child’s successes, rather than his or her transgressions.
All week long, Tuivai watches students interact, and all the while she makes notes. Each weekend, she sits down to write in a journal she will give to each parent, come Monday. She writes about who’s playing with who, the kinds of questions this child is asking, the strengths that child is exhibiting.
“Often parents are so busy working – that’s the reality of the world we live in – but this is a critical time in these children’s lives,” Tuivai said. “These are primary years. We nurture and we love here. We pay attention.”