Santa Monica education is changing not only in curriculum, but programs to be offered as well.

Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District staff recommended that the Board forego an impending 5-year Head Start grant in favor of creating SMMUSD’s own model of early education at a Thursday, December 13 board meeting.

Due to continuous low head start enrollment, Los Angeles County Department of Education — the district’s Head Start grantee — changed expectations for the district this school year. LACOE asked the district to cap current enrollment (118 students) and bring on 8 Early Head Start (0-2.11 years old) students, a program which would have teachers visit a student’s home once weekly and have parents come to a socialization event at the school.

If the district didn’t abide by this, SMMUSD would lose funding, a teacher and assistance in a classroom. The district accepted for the upcoming year.

“But this is an expectation that will increase,” Dr. Susan Samarge-Powell, director of Child Development Services at SMMUSD said.

For 2019-2020, LACOE wanted to begin a5-year grant commitment with the district in which the district would have both Head Start and Early Head Start, doubling the students for Early Head Start and getting Head Start enrollment to 112 students. This would award the district with $1,621,328 in grant money.

Samarge-Powell lauded the Head Start programming, listing many of its own benefits, but said ultimately, the program is restrictive with its regulations, arguing Head Start inhibits growth.

A SMMUSD program, she argued, would be better aligned with the district’s educational goals with program support bolstered by preexisting district frameworks, staff working with previous district-aligned early education experience and community partnerships. She said this would create a “self-reflective, shared system of accountability.”

Samarge-Powell says the SMMUSD model would have “a little more latitude” in providing help to the roughly 70 students that would qualify under Federal Head Start fiscal requirements and more. While Head Start has fiscal requirements, Samarge-Powell says families “just making it” get left behind. The SMMUSD model would benefit these families with the district’s better support system, she said.

The program would cost $800,000 per year or around $11,500 per student, an upfront cost Samarge Powell says would pay itself off later by reducing costs, supporting students throughout their educational careers as opposed to during only Head Start.

Board reaction was mostly positive.

Oscar De La Torre commented that he wouldn’t feel comfortable with Head Start being eliminated, saying he feels the program holds the district accountable.

“Head Start provides our district with diversity in programming,” he said. “The issue I have is I have to think of the future. Knowing demographics are shifting to a more affluent parent base, Head Start holds us accountable. Head start helps us reach the most vulnerable.”

Board Vice President Jon Kean said he understands the fear of eschewing Head Start, lauding what it’s done for education, but said the new program will be for the better.

“With a $23,000 ceiling for income, the working poor of Santa Monica aren’t eligible for support. With this new program, we’re giving up money upfront, but that money is being spent on 118 children, 70 from Santa Monica … What we’re saying is we’ll still have some same processes, but it will be a universal Santa Monica program.”

Board member Craig Foster agreed, echoing Kean’s sentiments.

“This is an important step,” he said. “We can’t have silos with walls around them that we can’t make changes to … If we’re not prepared to change, we won’t change anything. I don’t know a better place to change than right here and now.”

Staff will make a decision on this at a future board meeting, almost assuredly foregoing Head Start.


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