Menlo Park district preschool expands in its second year with classroom at Oak Knoll School


Students are experimenting with Play-Doh and crayons, and learning to cut in a straight line as they settle into the first days of the school year at the Early Learning Center (ELC), which recently added students and expanded to another local campus.

The Menlo Park City School District's fee-based preschool, which first opened for the 2018-19 school year at Laurel School Lower Campus in Atherton, has expanded from 54 to 88 students. It added a classroom of 22 students at Laurel, which brings the number up to three classrooms there, and opened one classroom with 22 children at Oak Knoll in Menlo Park.

"It's going really great," said ELC Director Jessica Mihaly, who is overseeing both school sites. "It felt like a fast growth rate, but we hired really excellent, competent teachers."

There are 13 teachers on staff at the center, which serves children just under 3 years old up to 5 years.

The district retrofitted an Oak Knoll classroom for the preschool by adding tot-sized toilets, a small staff kitchen and furniture, Mihaly said. Workers will install a shaded structure in the outdoor area this month, she said.

The ELC ran summer camps for preschoolers from July 8 to Aug. 9. Weekly themes were based on the classic children's literature of Eric Carle, coming from stories such as "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," "I See a Song" and "The Mixed Up Chameleon," according to the school's website. Activities included water and sand play, paint, physical activity, creative music and yoga.

New curriculum

The center is piloting new curriculum created by Sesame Workshop -- the nonprofit behind "Sesame Street" -- which is focused on early literacy and social and emotional learning, in which educators teach students to assert their feelings directly, be mindful, make decisions, work well in groups and be self-aware, among other skills. (The Primary School, a private K-8 school started by Dr. Priscilla Chan in East Palo Alto, has also implemented the curriculum, Mihaly noted.)

"It's recognizing at this age the primary task of early childhood is to learn to be good friends and to learn to recognize our own feelings and express our needs appropriately," Mihaly said. "It's an area we want to make sure we're really focusing on for children."

Mihaly said kindergarten teachers would like to see students enter their classes with great emotional regulation skills. The center strives to teach its preschoolers how to manage conflict and stay focused on a task, while also getting academic preparation, she said.

Educators will also participate in a program called Conscious Discipline, where they will learn to integrate social and emotional learning, discipline and self-regulation into their teaching so they spend less time policing behavior, Mihaly said.

More on the school

Tuition cost for the 2019-20 school year for students who attend full-day classes Monday through Friday is $23,100 ($2,100 a month). The cost for students who attend part-day classes every weekday is $16,500 ($1,500 a month), according to the district's website. Beginning this school year, children of district staff and siblings of currently enrolled students will receive a 10% tuition discount.

The district reached its goal this school year to subsidize tuition for 25% of the preschoolers on a sliding scale based on family income. During the 2018-19 school year, 12 students, or 22%, received scholarships, Mihaly said.

Most students are district residents who will go to district elementary schools, she said. A handful of students from Palo Alto and Redwood City attend the school.

Full-day classes run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and part-day classes are held from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Last school year, full-day classes ran from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and part-day, from 1:30 to 5 p.m., with care available until 6 p.m.

The district considered offering two- and three-day options this year, but decided against it because there wasn't enough demand, Mihaly said.

ELC originally planned to expand the program to 72 students this school year, but it grew even more. Mihaly said she is unsure if the center will add students next school year, but said it will in the long run.

There are still a handful of slots open this school year, and the center will begin enrollment for 2020-21 soon, Mihaly said.

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