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Innovative Menlo Park school has kids of all backgrounds learning together

 

From the outside, the All Five School in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood looks just like any other preschool.

Three- and 4-year-olds play in the sand, scale a climbing structure, stack giant blocks and try to gain their teachers' attention with the occasional bout of not-too-serious sounding tears. It's organized chaos.

What this school really is, however, is the embodiment of the long-nurtured dreams of a Menlo Park woman who believes that the best way to improve the lives of children is to make sure they get a good start, long before they enter kindergarten.

Carol Thomsen also believes that a good start involves putting children of diverse backgrounds, from different neighborhoods and income levels, into the same classrooms.

Ms. Thomsen and her All Five co-founder Kaitlin Smith, who grew up in Atherton, are alike in many ways, but also very different. Both attended Stanford University, both majored in anthropology, and both care deeply about education, especially education of the underserved.

Ms. Thomsen, however, has been teaching young children since about the time Kaitlin, who is 30, was born. They graduated from Stanford 25 years apart.

The preschool has been a longtime dream of Ms. Thomsen, who not only worked for many years in preschools attended by the offspring of some of the Midpeninsula's elite -- Bing Nursery School, Menlo-Atherton Cooperative Nursery School and the Stanford Children's Center, among them -- but also recently spent a year as a site supervisor for an East Palo Alto Head Start program.

Ms. Smith, who now lives in San Francisco, attended Phillips Brooks, Menlo School and Stanford University. She began working in the East Palo Alto and Belle Haven communities when she was 18, and has been there ever since. She says she became frustrated when she realized the elementary school children she was working with were already two years behind other children by kindergarten and, she says, "it was virtually impossible to catch them up."

In April 2014, two years after Ms. Thomsen had formed a non-profit called Kelima School (Kelima means all five in Indonesian) and a year after Ms. Smith formed a nonprofit with similar aims (Cradle to Great), the two joined forces to create All Five School. Ms. Smith says she needed Ms. Thomsen's years of early childhood education experience. Ms. Thomsen says Ms. Smith's business sense attracted her.

Michely Goncalves, the head teacher at All Five, brings her own stellar credentials. She knows four languages English, Spanish, Portuguese (her native language) and sign language. She has experience working with high-needs children. She has a deaf son and worked for eight years in the Weingarten Children's Center for deaf children.

All Five opened Sept. 1, offering 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. care for children from 2 years and 9 months to kindergarten age. It will run year-round, with only a short time off: holidays, a week in summer, and between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Getting there wasn't easy, though. The two spent 18 months fundraising, which they say was particularly hard to do because they didn't have a facility to raise funds for.

Finding that facility was even harder. The two looked at more than 100 sites, from San Mateo to East Palo Alto, spending, Ms. Thomsen says, "significant time" on nearly 30 of them.

"One was a boxing ring," Ms. Smith says. "We got desperate at one point and looked at some place in Napa."

More than once they thought they had found what they were looking for only to lose it at the last minute.

Finally, in late June they signed a contract for the use of an aging portable on the edge of the Belle Haven School site in Menlo Park. They share the building with Family Connections. The space needed paint, carpets, carpentry and wiring, plus new windows to replace "clouded plastic sheets," when they took it over in early August. They moved walls, bought furniture and supplies, and did massive amounts of state paperwork.

"We put more money than we thought we would into it," Ms. Smith says. "We were happy to do it.

They finally had a home, but the timing meant they had only a month to find 24 students. Twelve are fully subsidized, low-income students; the other 12 are partially subsidized or full-tuition students. Maximum tuition is $1,700 a month.

Two and a half weeks in, All Five had 16 students, with several families part way through the application process. At least six spots are still open, although the school already has a waiting list for the fully subsidized spots.

Virginia Damian of East Palo Alto, speaking in Spanish through a translator, says her 4-year-old son Leonardo is very happy at the school. He is learning to count, and to write, she says. Leonardo, who is one of five children, is also, she says, more easy-going, less shy and more talkative than he was before he started school.

Beatrice Takasugi, who lives in North Fair Oaks, says her son Zeke, has "developed a lot over the last two weeks." Ms. Takasugi says she and her husband, both graduates of Stanford University, appreciate the school's socio-economic diversity. "That's the specific reason we joined," she says.

But the full day of school, meals and flexibility are also attractive, she says. "The other piece I love is the family engagement," Ms. Takasugi says. Each family is expected to work one hour a week, and to attend one evening meeting every three months. She is helping the school's founders with networking, outreach and development; other parents help with cleaning or with other skills they have, she says.

Arnina Hebbert, who lives in Menlo Park, says she thinks the program is "wonderful." "I have a 3-year-old and I'm a full-time working mother," she says. "I think Carol is doing something that a lot of people don't think is important."

"I like the structure I like what she's bringing to the community," she says.

Ms. Smith and Ms. Thomsen say they see All Five as a pilot program they can scale up. They also hope to expand the program to match its name, which is meant to encompass the first five years of a child's life the time, Ms. Thomsen says, when "your brain grows more than any other time in your life." They are continuing to look for a site to serve infants and toddlers, she says.

AllFive.org, the school's website has information about the school and its program as well as how to donate time, money and supplies.

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