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Goleta District’s New Learning Tree Preschool Helping Toddlers Blossom

Six special-needs students receive a head start on getting settled before the school year starts

Red tricycles and tiny wooden chairs sit shiny and new in the Goleta Union School District’s recently opened Learning Tree Preschool, and students are already breaking them in.

Beginning June 14, six special-needs toddlers received a head start at the new preschool, where six typically developing toddlers will join them in August for an inclusive learning program.

“They are just turning 3 years old and have never been in a school setting,” Assistant Superintendent Jackie Law said. “We just want them to play and to love the place. It’s the optimal situation; they have the opportunity to get adjusted before the school year starts.”

Inside the Learning Tree Preschool, a mural of a bright green tree with yellow stars and a purple sky spans one wall of the classroom. GUSD staff members Dannon Story and Rosa Greening volunteered to paint the mural.

“After I showed them a small picture of it, they made it come to reality in the classroom,” Law said.

She said the preschool’s name and mural were inspired by the orchards of lemon trees for which Goleta is known. The preschool will keep kids closer to home, instead of traveling to other facilities around the county.

“We wanted to serve them in the district,” Law said. “By localizing the preschool, it feels more family-like.”

Located just around the corner from the district’s administrative offices, at 401 N. Fairview Ave., toddlers can play outside on the swing set and sandbox or play inside with the kitchen set and blocks. Filled with tiny chairs and colorful toys, the Learning Tree is dedicated to providing an inviting and playful environment for the newcomers.

“It is sort of a ‘pre’ preschool, if you will,” Law said. “It also allows us to develop an individualized learning plan for each of them. That way, each of their learning programs will be ready when school starts.”

Toddlers take their first wobbly steps into the school system at the Learning Tree Preschool. It is where they begin to understand the basics of the classroom.

“They are learning to listen to the teacher during story time and how to sit in chairs,” Law said. “They are just blossoming.”

“I think it’s just wonderful,” said Betty Mason, aunt and guardian of preschooler Jesse Rogers. “Jesse doesn’t even look back. He’s so excited to go there. People warned me that he would cry. But, I’m telling you that that wasn’t the case.”

The staff — including a lead teacher, two assistants, a speech therapist, a school psychologist and a behavioral consultant — provide a positive support system for the children. All of the staff members are bilingual and have a strong background in childhood development. Lead teacher Maria Victoria Mesa-Davila formerly worked for the Santa Barbara County Education system as a special-education support services teacher.

“We meet all of the needs of all of our children,” Law said. “All kids develop in different ways.”

The mixed environment has benefits for both special-needs children and typically developing children. The integrated program encourages special-needs children to reach optimal language and social development, Law said. Meanwhile, typically developing children learn tolerance and acceptance of differences at an early age, and they can experience higher self-esteem by becoming a “peer buddy,” she said.

“Jesse is a special-needs child, and it’s really important for him to be in a group situation with other children,” Mason said. “I’m really thankful for the quality of teaching.”

The district is still accepting applications for students, with discounts offered for Goleta Union employees. The morning session from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. is full, but there are openings for the afternoon session of 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Day-care services also are available.

The school year begins Aug. 23. Only 3- to 4-year-olds are eligible for the 2010-11 school year, and 3- to 5-year-olds can apply for the following year. For more information, call Law at 805.681.1200 x 219.

Noozhawk intern Andrea Ellickson, a UCSB graduate, is a journalism student at SBCC. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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