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Sassarini’s free, full-day preschool a win-win for families

A Sonoma parent found herself in a quandary. She realized the benefits of sending her young boy to preschool, but was in no position to afford the costs, and yet she wasn’t able to stay home to take care of him due to her work responsibilities.

Sassarini Elementary School has resolved that all-too-common dilemma for parents with its free, full-day preschool program.

“Full-day preschool is important because it allows parents and families more time for work,” said the parent, who asked not to be identified. “It also provides more social time for the child, which means more learning and social skills. I see that my child has grown immensely—from his social skills to his interest in learning letters and writing them.

“I wouldn’t be able to afford care for my child without it being a struggle financially. I am very fortunate he has the opportunity to be a part of this program, with amazing staff and teachers. Preschool is vital and often undervalued. Kids who attend preschool are on a path to a healthy school journey.”

Sassarini hosts a six-hour preschool program for 24 students five days each week. It is an inclusive, bilingual program with two bilingual teachers who support the students and their families. It aims to prepare the whole child as a lifelong learner by providing opportunities for children to meet their needs emotionally, physically, socially, cognitively and creatively. The safe, healthy, reliable, stimulating, culturally and linguistically appropriate environment actively engages children in acquiring the skills needed to succeed in school.

“Some children come into our program who have never been away from their parents, have very little to no English, learn differently, have behavioral issues or have learning disabilities,” said Lisa Bell, child center coordinator and director of the Sassarini preschool program since 2017. “A high-quality English program like we offer at Sassarini helps those students be kindergarten-ready. Preschool helps to close the achievement gap and helps children build strong social/emotional, pre-math, language, literacy and general life skills.

“Research shows that children who attend preschool have high academic achievement skills, lower incarceration rates and higher overall earnings. Preschool helps set the foundation for a child’s path in life.”

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) also offers free preschool at two other elementary schools. El Verano, which began its preschool program in 2008, hosts one three-hour morning class and one three-hour afternoon class, both for 24 students, five days each week. Prestwood, which established its program in 2016, hosts one three-hour class in the morning and in the afternoon, both for 16 students, five days per week.

“There are many more amazing preschool opportunities in Sonoma, from family home care to center-based preschools and additional subsidized programs offered by 4Cs and Head Start,” Bell said of the well-known young education programs. “While there are many options, most of them are not affordable to many families in our Valley.”

Students qualify for SVUSD’s preschool programs through income eligibility or special education designation. Some 10% of current students enrolled at the three district sites are special education students.

SVUSD began its first preschool at El Verano with funding from the California State Preschool Program. Since 2012, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) has also contributed funds to help the local preschool program grow.

“SVEF got involved with SVUSD’s program to expand it to additional sites and additional students,” said Angela Ryan, the foundation’s executive director. “We have also supported other efforts to study and understand the Valley-wide preschool landscape and encourage the creation of additional public-private partnerships for preschool programs.”

Ryan said that it is very difficult for parents to afford preschool for their children, since in Sonoma Valley tuition costs an average of more than $15,000 per year.

“In a community where the average income is $30,000, this poses a substantial challenge to many families that live here,” she said. “In addition, we know that two out of every three students in Sonoma Valley public schools face risk factors and socioeconomic disadvantages, so creating preschool access for families of the highest need is essential in helping close achievement gaps and secure future success in life for those students.”

Ryan said that research suggests that a full-day preschool experience is necessary for students with risk factors to achieve the same benefits as their peers.

“So, we felt it essential to expand Sassarini to a full day of completely subsidized preschool at the beginning of the school year to ensure students with the highest need have access to high-quality preschool,” Ryan said.

She thinks that it is now especially critical for Sonoma Valley children to attend preschool.

“After two years of a pandemic, isolation and distance education that compounded the traumas already present in this community, the pressures on the early childhood education world and our youngest learners have never been more significant than what they face today,” Ryan said. “As day cares and child care centers were forced to cut back or close entirely, our community in Sonoma Valley saw a 70% decrease in available capacity for preschool during the height of the pandemic. Much of that capacity may never come back, or if it does, it may take a significant amount of time to return, which we know directly impacts our youngest learners’ trajectory for success in school and life.”

Bell said that a dedicated staff is needed to offer a high-quality preschool program.

“What’s needed is a teaching team that is dedicated and can adjust their teaching styles to match the needs of their students and their families each and every year,” she said. “You have to be able to ‘meet children where they are’ and intentionally teach for each child’s personal growth. Inclusive preschool practices work because we are all working on something and inclusion brings us all together.”

For more information about the Sassarini preschool program, contact Lisa Bell at 707-935-6028 or lbell@sonomaschools.org.

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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