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Starr King Parent-Child Workshop Celebrates 60th Year

If there is any truth to the adage, “Everything you need to know in life is learned in the sandbox,” then six decades of Santa Barbarans were readied for that journey right in the center of downtown. Starr King Parent-Child Workshop, a pre-school for 3, 4 and 5-year olds, is marking its 60th year of enriching families and children.

Starr King Parent-Child Workshop is a non-profit organization sponsored by Santa Barbara City College and is unique from most pre-schools in two distinct ways. First, as a cooperative, parents are committed to being involved by participating one morning each week at the preschool. Each day as many as 13 parents staff the preschool, working different indoor and outdoor stations under the direction of the director and assistant director.

“With our daily attendance anywhere from 38 to 49 children, our parental involvement offers a 3 to 1 ratio.” said Yolanda Medina-Garcia, who has served as director of the school since 1998 and is herself a former Starr King parent.

Another difference is the view of the preschool as a “lab” where the parents are the students who learn by observing experienced teachers and other parents working with the children, as well as observing their own child in this setting.

“I’ve had three children attend Starr King, so I’ve basically been involved off and on now for 10 years,” said Sloane Reali mother of Gabriel, 12; Matthew, 6, and Marie Clare, 5, “and I have to say I am always learning something new. It is amazing to be in such a dynamic place where we are continually being enlightened as parents.”

The weekly parent classes also serve to round out the education receive “‘in the field” with subjects ranging from child development and conflict resolution to social emotional development and Kindergarten readiness.

“I’ve really gained confidence as a parent,” said Eric Sanchez father of 4-year-old Alana. “I feel I have a better understanding and skill level in dealing with my child and other children in almost any situation.”

Stephanie Christoff, mother of 3-year-old Sofia and a new Starr King parent this year, adds, “I appreciate that Starr King does not use a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to dealing with children. Every child really becomes known on a personal level to every parent and staff member, and their particular needs and skill levels can be met in a very personalized way.”

The Starr King Parent-Child Workshop is also known for striving to create an environment that fosters a sustainable existence.

“It is our hope that through education and practice we will all learn to reduce unnecessary consumption of resources and reuse and recycle resources whenever possible.” said assistant director Suzanne Rebstock.

The school offers the children organic and/or locally grown whole food snacks, some grown in the organic vegetable and flower garden the children tend at the school.

Interestingly, the school’s format has not changed significantly since the beginning when it started out with only eight children. The most noticeable change has been that in the early days “parent” was almost synonymous with “mother.” These days, many fathers participate, as well.

The Starr King Parent-Child Workshop was founded in 1949 by a minister of the Santa Barbara Unitarian Church, Dr. Berkeley Blake. Blake wanted to establish a school keyed to child development and parent education. Sarah Foot, an experienced nursery school and parent-education teacher, was the first director. Selmer O. Wake, director of the Santa Barbara Adult Education Program, was also instrumental in getting the school started. It was incorporated and organized as a nonsectarian, nonpartisan, nonprofit, interracial group. The school was named after Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian minister who was credited by Abraham Lincoln with preventing California from becoming a separate republic.

As the founder and director from 1949 to 1974, Sarah Foot is credited with developing Starr King’s vision and blueprint and is considered a pioneer of parent participation in schools.

Six decades of Santa Barbarans, both parents and children have passed through the vine and flower-stenciled Starr King gate. Some well-known Starr King parents from the past include: U.S. Congresswoman Lois Capps, former District Attorney Tom Sneddon, Santa Barbara Architect John Pitman, former Santa Barbara Supervisor Jeanne Graffy, children’s book illustrator Don Freeman, City College Board Member Kay Alexander, gallery owner/actor Joe Bottoms, former SBCC president John Romo, City Councilman Roger Horton, engineer and philanthropist Virgil Elings and radio personality Nancy Newcomer.

Some recognizable Starr King “alumni” include marine architect John Shields, actor Ben Bottoms, county civil engineer Chris Sneddon, contractor Morgan DeLucia, doctor Thaddeus Bordofsky, Santa Barbara Travel Bureau COO David de L’Arbe, and Citrix VP/GM of Global Sales Michael Mansbach.

“I credit my years at Starr King for developing my diplomatic skills,” quips Colleen Graffy, a Starr King alumnus and now a law professor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. “It all began negotiating for a turn on the tricycles; who knew that it would be the launching pad to the negotiating I do today.”

Among the events planned for 2009 are a 60th anniversary celebration dinner for current and alumni families to be held Saturday, Feb. 21; and a Kinderfest Family Day slated for May 2. Click here for additional information or contact Eric Sanchez at 805.966.1325.

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