With momentum building for early childhood education locally and across the country, the Santa Monica-Malibu school district is in the process of expanding pre-kindergarten programming.

But during a recent Board of Education meeting, when SMMUSD officials unveiled long-term plans to have children go to preschool at the elementary sites in their home neighborhoods, the ensuing discussion hinged on two underlying questions:

Will such a system limit young kids’ interaction with students of other races, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds? And does that matter?

“This seems to be one of those cases when you have good goals that are a little bit in conflict with each other,” board president Laurie Lieberman said. “You get the benefits of being in your neighborhood school, but by doing that you then eliminate the possibility of mixing southside with northside. That is a loss. There’s no two ways about it.”

Edison Language Academy and Grant Elementary School have been chosen as pilot preschool sites for fall 2016, and officials hope to launch preschool at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School in Malibu by 2017.

The district has been hosting information sessions for prospective parents in recent weeks, including one at Edison on Feb. 23 and another at Grant on Feb. 24. A meeting at Juan Cabrillo, which already offers a transitional kindergarten program, is scheduled for Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m. The preschool and TK programs have been dubbed Seaside and Bridges, respectively.

The 10-month preschool program will cost $1,353, according to an SMMUSD notice, with an option for extended day care costing an additional $164. Financial assistance will be available to qualifying families.

District leaders have discussed aligning the preschool programs with the transitional kindergarten and kindergarten options. Transitional kindergarten is currently offered at Will Rogers, McKinley and Webster elementary schools.

Irene Gonzalez-Castillo, the district’s director of elementary curriculum and instruction, said that expanding early childhood education for students at their local campuses will improve equity and access, enhance relationships between families and educators, and streamline kids’ transitions from grade to grade.

She noted that just 15 of the 44 students served by Child Development Services at Grant live within the school’s attendance area. Thirteen come from other SMMUSD areas. Sixteen are from outside of the district.

“We want to serve kids at their neighborhood schools,” Gonzalez-Castillo said.

Board member Oscar de la Torre and local Classroom Teachers Association president Sarah Braff said such a system could have potentially negative outcomes.

“Do we lose the cross-neighborhood connections that currently happen?” de la Torre said. “Are there any downsides to saying children are going to stay in their neighborhood schools?”

Gonzalez-Castillo said the intent of home-site attendance is to help students and families develop relationships in their neighborhoods, adding that there are opportunities for inter-campus connections, such as field trips. In October, she said, students from Franklin Elementary School participated in an event at Edison.

Lieberman said it’s a conundrum that goes beyond the preschool level.

“It’s the same issue we face as a district,” she said. “Kids go to elementary school wherever they go. If they go to a more diverse school, they have great opportunities that others don’t get until they get to high school. It is a real issue. There’s no resolving those two things.”

jeff@smdp.com

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