Starting off right

Menlo Park City School District set to open long-planned preschool

Jessica Mihaly, the founding director of the preschool the Menlo Park City School District will open in the fall, helped launch San Mateo County's Big Lift program, which now serves about 2,500 children in seven underperforming school districts. Tuition will be subsidized on a sliding scale for 25 percent of preschoolers in the district program. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)

For years, study after study has shown the lifelong value of a preschool education for all children, but especially for those who have economic or other disadvantages.

The Menlo Park City School District has for decades wanted its own preschool to help ensure that all children will start kindergarten on an equal footing, school board President Terry Thygesen said. "If children don't get what they need to be thriving in the first five years," it can be hard for them to catch up later, she said.

Even in Menlo Park, some families just can't afford preschool, while others have trouble finding openings in a quality program, especially ones designed for working parents.

Early Learning Center to open

Next fall, if all goes according to plan, that may change for 88 children ages 3 to 5 who will be enrolled in the school district's new Early Learning Center at Laurel School Lower Campus in Atherton. To assist those who may need help the most, the district plans to subsidize tuition for 25 percent of the preschoolers on a sliding scale based on family income. The other 75 percent of students will pay market-rate tuition, which is expected to cover all the preschool's operating costs.

"We're providing opportunities for all children," said the preschool's founding director, Jessica Mihaly. "Early childhood is a time when all children, regardless of income, deserve the best."

District Superintendent Erik Burmeister said the district is "committed to the goal of every child graduating from eighth grade prepared for a rigorous high school education and access to a four-year university upon graduation from high school."

"Research is clear, if we want to accomplish this goal, we have to start earlier than kindergarten, especially for our first generation college-bound students, English learners, and children living below the poverty line," he said.

Ms. Thygesen said the preschool will help the district fulfill its vision of "helping all children become all that they can be."

Details, coming soon

Details of the program, such as tuition and subsidies, will be finalized after the district school board meets on Tuesday, Feb. 13.

To accommodate working parents, the plan is to have two full-day, mixed-age classrooms of 20 to 24 students each, operating from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. One additional classroom will have two half-day classes in the morning and afternoon.

Each classroom will have a head teacher, an assistant teacher and an aide. The district would like to hire teachers who are bilingual in Spanish and English. The program is now scheduled to follow the school district's calendar, but if enough parents are interested in summer and vacation sessions, they will be added.

Priority will go to school district residents and to children eligible for the Tinsley transfer program, which allows some students from the Ravenswood City School District to transfer into surrounding school districts. Children of district employees will be given second priority. If there are more applicants than spots, a lottery will be held.

Children must be at least 3 years old and potty-trained by fall to be eligible.

New campus freed up classrooms

The new preschool was made possible by the opening in fall 2016 of the new Laurel School Upper Campus. The new school freed up classroom space for the preschool, which will share space used by the Heritage Oaks Children's Center. That center offers preschool and other special support for children with special needs and their families, and children in the two centers will have opportunities to play and socialize together.

If the program is successful, Ms. Mihaly said, it will be expanded in coming years.

Ms. Mihaly has been working on setting up the school since she was hired by the district in September. She has a long and varied background of working with young children, including six years helping to launch the Silicon Valley Community Foundation's Big Lift program in San Mateo County. That program helped to start preschool programs in seven underperforming school districts and is now serving about 2,500 children.

She also spent five years working on the county's First Five program, leading the Preschool for All Design Group and securing and administering more than $10 million in grants for the program.

"I really believe that starting as young as possible is the key for improving lives for all children," she said. "I was really excited when I heard Menlo Park was launching this program," she added, especially because it includes "a commitment to serving lower-income children who might not otherwise have access."

"They gave me a lot of leeway to create a program," she said.

Ms. Mihaly has a master's degree in early childhood education and a multiple subjects teaching credential from Mills College, as well as a bachelor's degree in dance and movement studies from Naropa University.

She previously taught in several types of preschools, and also teaches child development and early childhood courses at City College of San Francisco and in the San Mateo Community College District.

Parent education, too

The Early Learning Center program will include parent education and "family cafes," parent-led events for "parents (to) come together and talk about the challenges of parenting," Ms. Mihaly said.

Parents will be welcome to volunteer in the classrooms, or to drop in at any time, but volunteering will not be required, she said.

The classrooms will be full-sized, with lots of windows and access to fenced-in outdoor spaces. One of several playgrounds will be shared with the Heritage Oaks students, and there will also be indoor play space.

"We have this great opportunity to have this facility that's in really great shape," Ms. Mihaly said. Some paint, preschool-sized bathroom equipment, and some work on secured outdoor play spaces are about all that is needed, she added.

Ms. Mihaly grew up in Berkeley, where her father taught political science at University of California, Berkeley and her mother worked at the International House on campus. "Both my parents were educators," she said.

She now lives in San Carlos and has a 14-year-old son and a 26-year-old daughter.

The program will focus on learning through play but will prepare students for programs used in the district, such as readers' and writers' workshops.

"Our vision is to have a very high-quality experience," Ms. Thygesen said. The districts wants to "really help ensure that all students are as ready as they possibly can be to learn when they start kindergarten."

Advisory board

Ms. Mihaly has help from a 28-member advisory board made up of a wide array of educators and early childhood experts from around the state.

One of the advisers is Carol Thomsen, who founded the All Five preschool in Menlo Park, which also offers a mix of subsidized and full-tuition preschool spots in an all-day program.

"While the program might be 'competition' for us, the most important thing is that more children will be served -- that is always a good thing," Ms. Thomsen said. "The more early education programs that work toward real socioeconomic diversity, the better."

She added: "I think this type of preschool is important because all children, regardless of what environment they were born into, have lively minds. We need to stop segregating children because of their socioeconomic status in their earliest years."`

Information night is Feb. 15

An information night for families interested in the Early Learning Center will be held on Thursday, Feb. 15, in the Menlo Park City School District's TERC room at 181 Encinal Ave. in Atherton, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., with Spanish translation available.

The district's school board will meet on Tuesday, Feb. 13, starting at 6 p.m. in the same room, with approval of details regarding the preschool program on the agenda.

Pending board approval, applications for the initial lottery will be available starting Wednesday, Feb. 14, via the district's website.

Donations needed

Donations of used items in good condition to help furnish the preschool classrooms are needed. Items sought include wooden toys and puzzles, Lego and Duplos, Magnatiles, costumes, puppets, wooden blocks, doll houses, books for 3- to 5-year-olds, train tables and trains, play kitchens and dishes and "pretend food."

The school would also like to find a real rowboat or kayak to put in its play yard, and love seats or oversized chairs for reading areas.

Funds to help pay for scholarships for low-income children are also accepted.

The Early Learning Center is also part of Kepler's Community Partner Program. Mention the center when making a purchase to have 6 percent of the proceeds donated to the center.

More information

The district's website has information about the new preschool program and how to register. Contact Jessica Mihaly, for more information.

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