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The Mobile Waterford English Learning Project — with two teachers and eight computers — brings 20 minutes of free one-on-one reading instruction every day to some of Santa Barbara’s hundreds of non-English-speaking 4-year-olds. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

Perhaps a good way to prevent disadvantaged students from bringing knives to school at age 14 is to teach them the alphabet at age 4.

That is one of the tenets of a preschool-in-a-van project funded entirely by philanthropists that began about a year ago. So far, the test-score results — and fundraising efforts — are looking positive.

Called the Mobile Waterford English Learning Project, the van — equipped with two teachers and eight computers — brings 20 minutes of free one-on-one reading instruction every day to some of Santa Barbara’s hundreds of non-English-speaking 4-year-olds. Throughout the day, it makes at least six stops, mostly in neighborhoods on the east and west sides.

After the program’s first year, the test scores of the nearly 90 preschool-age children who benefited from the program last year were, on average, nearly three times higher than those of a control group of students in the same demographic. Thanks to increased funding from local donors, the program is poised to grow significantly at a time when local preschool availability is on a slight decline.

The project’s first anniversary coincides with sweeping efforts by the city and schools to address a gang problem that has resulted in the stabbing deaths of three teenagers in two years. So far, the government agencies have spent considerable time and resources reaching out to the youths who are already in the gangs — or old enough to be. In nearly every case, the students most at risk seem to be Latino children who fall behind in school.

Meanwhile, the group of philanthropists, called California Concern, is attacking the same problem from another angle: prevention. The nearly 15 members of the group, which is running the program in partnership with Santa Barbara’s K-12 school system, believe that when it comes to gang problems and other social woes plaguing places with large segments of disadvantaged minorities, it all starts on that first day of kindergarten, when those children are already miles behind their more affluent peers.

One of the group’s most active members is John Coie, a retired Duke University psychology professor whose academic work sought ways to prevent losing high-risk youths to violence and crime.

Coie says that one of the most troubling aspects of the gang lifestyle is it offers a host of tangible rewards — respect, a sense of belonging, monetary gain — for teens who feel they are ill-equipped to excel within the confines of the traditional system.

“When you’re in a gang, you’re protected by the gang,” he said. “If society wants to get rid of the gang problem, they are going to have to find good substitutes. I think what we’re doing is a very important start to that.” 

Of course, gang prevention wasn’t the only impetus for the project. Even without the gang problem, school officials in Santa Barbara and across California and the United States have long been perplexed by a stubborn achievement gap between Latino and black students and their white and Asian counterparts. The ever-present goal is to continue to close that gap.

As for the van program, about 80 percent of the students who start it know basically zero English on day one, officials say. When the knee-high children begin the program, most don’t even know how to utter the words “paper” or “pencil” in English, said Soei Duran, one of the teachers.

“By the end of the year, most of the children recognize all the letters,“ she said, adding that about half of the children end the year knowing the sounds all of the letters make.

The eight computers inside the van are equipped with a much-lauded piece of tutoring software. Called Waterford, the computer program essentially allows students to teach themselves, with some vital guidance provided by the teachers, who also teach them to write the letters on paper.

Waterford takes a “Sesame Street” approach to learning. Students wear headphones and learn letters and sounds by interacting with cartoons that tell stories, present educational games and sing songs.

Students follow along by answering multiple-choice questions. Meanwhile, the computer program records all of their answers onto a server. The students who master the concepts move on. Those who need more time interact with other cartoons teaching the same lessons.

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The mobile reading program hopes to purchase a second van, which could serve as many as 88 more students. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

So far, Mobile Waterford is serving 50 students throughout the city, mostly in schools in the east and west sides. The program, which is designed to begin anew every fall, is ready to expand. California Concern is only about $19,000 shy of raising the amount necessary to cover the 2008-09 budget, which is estimated to be $276,000. That means there’s enough cash for a new van and more staff.

Coie said he expects the program to swell to 100 students by December partly because some of the students in a few weeks will begin the Waterford program at Head Start, a federally funded preschool that teaches non-English-speaking students in their native tongue. Then, perhaps after the holidays, Coie expects to be able to purchase the second van, which could serve as many as 88 more students. 

Teachers caution that the van program is not meant to be a substitute for preschool, but for a small group of local children, it’s the only true option. An unexpected shortage of space this year at Harding Elementary on the west side has caused the school district to cancel one of the preschool classes it had planned to offer for low-income families.

Some families are on a waiting list for preschool. Those families will be picked up by the Mobile Waterford Program, which will come to their neighborhoods.

Also, because Californians rejected an initiative that would have brought free preschool to all families, even middle class and affluent families, the three-year-old pilot “preschool for all” project at McKinley Elementary is slated to shut down after this school year.

The local Mobile Waterford program has two major donors: the James S. Bower Foundation on Micheltorena Street and the Orfalea Family Foundation started by Kinko’s founder and local resident Paul Orfalea. Others include All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara and many individual donors. The school district helps by putting the employees on its administrative payroll, even though their salaries are covered by the donations.

Coie acknowledges that figuring out how to run the program in perpetuity will be a challenge.

“Some of our donors want to know the answer to that one,” he said. “I just don’t know. Maybe there will be public education funds or state funds, but I’m not holding my breath for that right now. And it may be that some of the donors will continue to support this year after year because they recognize what this is doing for the community.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at