District considers making preschools public

David Briggs
Ethel Seiderman (center) spoke about the importance of early-childhood education at a meeting on Monday. A task force will explore alternatives, including a merger, for the area’s two preschools.
02/07/2013

A path to consolidating preschool education for Bolinas and Stinson Beach residents appeared to take shape last week, when more than two dozen parents and educators gathered to explore the possibility of merging two private preschools into a public school district facing shifting demographics and educational needs.

The discussion, unfolding at the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District’s Bolinas campus on Monday evening, reflected what superintendent Larry Enos described as a willingness among district stakeholders to “maintain valuable preschool options for kids.”

“People are looking at us to see what could happen,” Mr. Enos said during the meeting, in which he proposed forming a committee to “take a really deep and serious look” at merging the Bolinas Children’s Center and Stinson Beach Montessori School, which together house about 30 children, within the next year and a half.  

Membership on the committee will be limited to nine parents and educators, whose applications the school board will review before making selections in the coming months.

The district plans to use a $25,000 grant—what Mr. Enos called “dream money”—it received recently from First 5 Marin, an early childhood support group, to research and develop new educational programs, including for a growing number of Latino students. The district also plans to seek ways to identify

children with learning disabilities and other special needs.

Calls for a “preschool-for-all” program have come more than a year after what Mr. Enos characterized as a “semi-crisis,” in which the district considered ending a lease agreement with the Stinson preschool, which has operated in a room used by the district for grades K-2, to make room for more district students.  

Those projections, however, were overestimated by the district, which instead saw a slight decline in enrollment, Mr. Enos said.

Concern over the fate of the Stinson preschool—which braced for closure before receiving a one-year lease extension the district will consider renewing before it expires at the end of June—led parents and school officials to offer proposals to preserve the program. Among them was former school principal Leo Kostelnik, who proposed converting the campus into a pre-K educational center including a gymnasium and a science lab, among other facilities.

Such ideas were seen as a way to remove financial pressure from both preschools, which rely entirely on funding from grants and other donations.  

“It’s month-to-month for those guys,” Mr. Enos said by phone.

The preschools also rely largely on costs for enrollment, including hourly rates between $6 and $8 at the Bolinas preschool and an annual fee ranging from $3,500 to $6,500 at the Stinson preschool.

Those costs are seen by some parents as prohibitive.

“Preschool, for so many families, is unaffordable,” said Christine Cunha, a former treasurer of the Stinson preschool. Ms. Cunha supports plans to form a preschool run by the district, which would draw public funding.

Not everyone agrees the preschool system needs to be reformed, however.

Michael Cavette, a father of a 2-year-old at the Bolinas preschool, which offers financial assistance for low-income families largely with funds received by the state’s education department, said “plenty of scholarship spots” are available for qualified families.

“They’re going to spend a year, and $25,000, to look at a problem I’m not sure existed,” he said.

The push for a merger underscores an emphasis on the importance of preschool—an emphasis reinforced by Ethel Seiderman, a longtime early education advocate who founded the Fairfax-San Anselmo Children’s Center in the 1960’s who entreated the group to consider ways to ensure “everybody has an opportunity at education.”

“We’re in the boat together,” Ms. Seiderman said. “They’re our kids.”

That sense of fellowship was acknowledged by Susan Tacherra, the director of the Stinson preschool, who said that, while admitting she has a “vested interest” in a merger, she hopes the district will adopt an educational system turning up in school districts across the country.

“In 20 years, I hope we can look back and say, ‘We were there, we started this thing,’” Ms. Tacherra said. “It’s a momentous time for preschoolers.”

Mr. Enos, who has worked as an administrator in the Bolinas-Stinson and Lagunitas school districts for about 35 years, agrees.

“I don’t want to retire ‘till I really exhaust looking at what this can be,” he said. “We have an opportunity to make a profound impact.”