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Tutors in a Van Bring Preschool to the Disadvantaged

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A small group of local philanthropists is the driving force behind a mobile preschool program that is helping disadvantaged kids learn to speak English.

If you can’t get kids to come to preschool, then bring the preschool to them — in a van.

That’s the idea behind a new program targeting children living in poor neighborhoods who speak no English.

Called the Mobile Waterford English Learning Project, the free English-teaching program was launched by a group of Santa Barbara philanthropists after little more than a year in planning. The group found a van, gutted the interior and then equipped it with eight computers and two professional teachers.

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Since the program’s kickoff two weeks ago, the teachers have driven the van every day into neighborhoods filled with underserved 4 year olds, most or all of them Latino children who started out knowing nary a word of English.

"The first day, we tell them, ‘This is a monitor, this is a mouse, these are the headphones,’" said Soei Duran, a certified teacher who works in the van. "The kids learn it fast — they are like sponges."

The group of philanthropists, called California Concern, is working directly with Santa Barbara’s K-12 public school system to make the project happen. The group’s roughly 15 members 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.

The idea is to start catching them up long before that first day. In Santa Barbara, the number of kids in question is large: 45 percent of this year’s kindergarten class spoke no English on the first day of school, according to the group.

Such students are much more likely to become frustrated and drop out of school, they say. The cracks in the dam tend to become visible just after elementary school, said Santa Barbara resident John Coie, a member of the group and a retired Duke University psychology professor.

"The attendance rates among local middle-school kids is just shocking," said Coie, whose work at Duke sought ways to prevent losing high-risk youth to violence and crime. "If these kids know English pre-reading skills when they enter kindergarten, they are going to be successful and stay in school."

The program currently serves about 65 children, but aims to expand to at least 100 as soon as possible.

Ultimately, the goal is to reach most of the roughly 400 local children who enter kindergarten without knowing any English, Coie said. (While 45 percent of the students in Santa Barbara’s elementary schools don’t know English, 70 percent are Latino.) This would require getting at least a couple more vans.

As it is, the program’s sole van makes eight stops to neighborhoods on the Westside, Eastside, downtown area and elsewhere. The students will use the program for 20 minutes every day for a year before entering kindergarten.

So far, the lion’s share of students are already enrolled in a federally funded preschool called Head Start, which teaches non-English-speaking students in their native tongue.

Every morning, the van pulls to a stop outside the Head Start building on the Westside cul-de-sac of Coronel Place, and the pint-size kids file in.

Coie said he is happy to have found a place with so large a concentration of non-English-speaking students. But he hopes to dig deeper to find the more challenging segments — such as the children whose parents tend to hide in their homes, living in fear of being deported.

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"This is like shooting fish in a barrel," he said last week, pointing toward the Head Start building behind the van. Then he fixed his gaze on a modest-looking home with a garage down the block. "We still want to get the couple hundred or so kids who are living in places like that garage over there."

He added that the group is making presentations to parents at various apartment complexes around town.

"Our task this year is to locate them — even locate the 3 year olds for next year," he said.

The van was donated to the group by Mission Linen Supply Co. To make the van more kid-friendly, the group took it to an artist in Santa Maria who embossed the side of it with images of animals.

More important, however, is the van’s interior. The eight computers inside are equipped with a much-lauded piece of tutoring software. Called Waterford, the computer program essentially allows students to teach themselves. (The teachers in the Mobile Waterford English Learning Project also play an important supervisory role, Coie said.)

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. To drive home the concept of the letter A, for instance, the program might feature a cartoon of a man sitting beneath an apple tree.

Throughout, 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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All told, the group has raised enough money to run the program for a year — about $135,000. Of that, about $40,000 in pledges has come from the group, $40,000 from the local Bower Foundation and $10,000 from All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church. The rest has come from local foundations and individuals who wish to remain anonymous. Meanwhile, the money is being handled by administrators at the Santa Barbara school districts.

Coie said learning English is not the only important element for the disadvantaged students.

"Getting them to leave school as competent and effective citizens who can take worthy work roles and contribute to the community is just fundamentally important to us," he said. "They’re the California of tomorrow."

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