After a single semester in operation, Menlo Park City School District's new preschool is already "a home away from home" for children to "experience wonder and engage their curious minds," according to the program's director.
The preschool, called the Early Learning Center, or ELC, opened at Laurel School Lower Campus in Atherton on Aug. 24. Teachers use project-based learning with six-week curriculum themes for children just under 3 years old to 5 years old.
"The kids are really happy and the teachers are really involved," said ELC Director Jessica Mihaly. "We're excited to be part of something new."
Each classroom has 22 students and a lead teacher, assistant teacher and a preschool aide. The two classes have their own names: The older students are part of the Hummingbirds classroom; the younger students are part of the Doves.
ELC parent Nicole Fabrikant said her son comes home from school singing songs he learned and re-enacting stories that are read.
"He also comes home wanting to show us all that he has learned: from correctly identifying the first letter of a word -- based on the sound that the letter makes to lining up objects and talking about their sizes relative to one another, to counting objects by groups," Frabikant wrote in an email.
Another parent said her daughter adjusted to the preschool quickly.
"New country, new home, new language and the first time full day at daycare," wrote parent Julia Arslanova in an email. "But the teachers and the director were so caring and attentive, that after only three weeks in, she did not want to leave the center. And it was such a relief for me as a working mom."
A diverse group
The school is striving to provide a unique, high-quality early education for a group of children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. The district plans to subsidize tuition for 25 percent of the preschoolers on a sliding scale based on family income. Right now, 12 students, or 22 percent, receive scholarships to attend the preschool, Mihaly said. The remaining students are charged market-rate tuition, which covers all the preschool's operating costs.
Nineteen children, or 35 percent of students, are English-language learners, speaking French, Russian, Estonian, Mandarin and Spanish, she said.
"Preschool and the early years provide a foundation for a child's later growth and development," said Mihaly, who spearheaded the Silicon Valley Community Foundation's reading initiative, The Big Lift, before launching the preschool. "They are more likely to do better in life and school."
The names of the preschool students will be entered into a district database, where the district can track how older students who attended the ELC do compared with students who didn't attend.
At ELC, students learn to master handwriting skills through a program called "Writing Without Tears." Counting and reading are part of the curriculum. Students also "learn to feel safe and supported" in a school environment and learn how to be a good friend, Mihaly said.
Children bring a piece of fruit or a vegetable to class every day, which the teacher cuts and puts in a bowl to share with others during snacktime. It's an opportunity for students to try new food, she said.
Special education students from Laurel School Lower Campus visit ELC and participate in activities. It's another aspect of ELC's diversity and inclusion, she said.
Mihaly said one of the biggest challenges was retrofitting the program's building for preschoolers. Construction workers dug deep into the ground to build tot-sized toilets in the building that formerly housed second-grade classrooms.
Another challenge? The startup aches and pains of beginning a new program, she said.
But because the program is so new, the preschool works with families and teachers to ensure that it "works well for everyone," she said.
Growing the program
About 106 students were in the lottery for the 2018-19 school year and the preschool enrolled 54. Students come from Palo Alto, Redwood City, East Palo Alto and other nearby communities, Mihaly said. Full-day classes run from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and afternoon classes are from 1:30 to 5 p.m. (with care available until 6 p.m.).
The district may expand the program to 72 students next school year, and is exploring opening an ELC classroom at Oak Knoll School at that time as well. It's surveying Oak Knoll families to gauge interest in the addition.
There's also a question on the registration form for 2019-20 that allows families to indicate interest in the Oak Knoll site.
Further down the line? The center isn't specifically named a preschool for a reason -- to leave the option open to expand to include infants and toddlers. This would be labor-intensive though, Mihaly said.
"If the demand is there, and the space is there, we will expand," she said.
Registration for next school year opened Nov. 1 for children born between Sept. 1, 2014, and Dec. 1, 2016. The application period closes on Feb. 15.
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