Children ages 2 to 5 attend the Zaca Center preschool in Buellton. The Santa Barbara County Education Office is searching for a new operator after deciding not to fund the program after the current school year ends.  (Courtesy photo)

The Santa Barbara County Education Office announced in a letter to parents earlier this month that it will no longer be operating the Zaca Center preschool in Buellton after the end of the current school year.

The SBCEO has owned and operated the center for two decades, and is in the process of searching for a new operator, said Kathy Gulje, the South County coordinator for the office’s special education services.

Gulje told Noozhawk that the center’s income simply doesn’t match its expenses, which rise yearly. The center doesn’t have the funding avenues it did 20 years ago, she said.

If the county doesn’t find a new operator, the facility will close at the end of the school year. 

Parents of the 2-to-5-year-old children who attend the school were notified by the county in a Sept. 1 letter.

The Zaca Center, at 27 Six Flags Circle, was developed as a “creative and innovative model for full inclusion,” Gulje said, meaning special education children learn alongside general education children.

The preschool is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and a demonstration site for the Outdoor Classroom Project, an initiative of the Child Education Center.

Much of the preschool’s curriculum is undertaken outdoors, and parents of general education students pay tuition, while those of special education students do not.

As a demonstration site, early childhood educators from across the state visit the center and check out its educational model, said Theresa Embry, a project manager, trainer and consultant with the Outdoor Classroom Project who co-chairs its Santa Barbara County steering committee with Zaca’s director, Shelley Grand.

Grand and “her teachers are really integrated into the value of the whole children’s program,” Embry said, which includes nutritional and physical components.

With parents driving in from beyond the immediate community and facing limited alternatives, it’s critical that the center continues to operate, she said.

According to the SBCEO, 43 preschoolers and their families are served on any given day at the center. 

Zaca Center parents told Noozhawk it is the only preschool in the area not run through a church program.

Gulje said that the SBCEO is searching for a new operator who can continue running the center as it currently is, but with more funding sources.  

A new operator, for instance, might have people dedicated to writing grant proposals for further funding, which the SBCEO does not, Gulje said.

Communication with parents will continue, she added.

Anyone with questions about the Zaca Center changes can call the SBCEO at 805.964.4711.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.