This story has been updated. Please see editor's note below.

In December 2016, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District announced the creation of the first school district-affiliated preschool program in Malibu, to open for the 2017-18 school year.

It did not take long for the directors of many of Malibu’s established preschools to push back. Six Malibu nursery and preschool directors — representing Malibu Methodist Nursery School, Children’s Creative Workshop, California Ocean of Learning, Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue Preschool, Malibu Presbyterian Nursery School and Gan Malibu Preschool — joined together in a letter to request Malibu City Council support on the issue.

“There was no needs assessment done to research the current local preschool population, nor were any of the established local preschools contacted,” the letter states. “Had either happened, the district would have learned that most of the local established schools are not at maximum capacity. Most have several openings unfilled.”

Though a significant cost savings might come to mind — figures available from local nursery schools in Malibu put the figure at $975-1175 per month for private programs — the school district program is actually not state funded. According to figures from the district, preschool tuition for the 2016-17 school year in the district (in Santa Monica) started at $1,353 per month. 

District spokesperson Gail Pinsker emphasized reimbursements from the state could make enrollment free of charge for qualifying families who apply.

Shari Latta, longtime director of Children’s Creative Workshop and spokesperson for the consortium of preschools, said that the waiting list of students for her program has shrunk by about 60 percent, due in part to what appears to be a general downward trend in the number of young children in Malibu.

“I’m doing my signups for next year right now, and it’s very very slow,” Latta said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “I’m getting responses from people very slowly. My waiting list is down from 100 to 30, or something — 60 percent down on the waiting list. It’s interesting — I’ve been around 35 years and we’ve had bubbles... but I don’t know if Malibu’s getting too saturated.”

Pinsker said enrollment at the new program — to be called Seaside Preschool — was “under six” as of Tuesday, Feb. 21. The maximum students the preschool would accept will be capped at 24.

She also added benefits of the program include welcoming students to an “early learning pathway” that guides them all the way until middle school.

“We’re in the process of establishing schools that go from preschool all the way through fifth grade,” Pinsker explained. “In Malibu, since Cabrillo is the only site there, it’s an option for parents to at least be part of our system from an early age where the curriculum is part of a pathway to [transitional kindergarten] or kindergarten.” 

Pinsker also said the schools will provide services for special education students and English language learners they might not be able to find elsewhere.

“One of the things we need to emphasize as well, is we need to make sure we’re serving our special ed and English-learner populations, as well as families that cannot otherwise afford preschool that would qualify for financial aid through our program,” Pinsker said.

Latta said she — and, she was confident, all Malibu preschools “across the board” — is equipped to serve the needs of English learners and special education preschoolers.

“We get kids that are special needs — probably — but parents refuse to get them diagnosed through the district, because parents are afraid of the stigma,” Latta described. She added that the district’s own program for special needs students “next door” to Children’s Creative Workshop serves the community very well.

“We have several children that learn all their English here,” Latta continued, adding, “It’s all through play — the play they do and the projects and songs and stories.”

What it really comes down to, Latta said, is the legacy of education established preschools provide.

“We’re all the ones that have been here; we’re tried and true,” Latta said. “People that have been at these schools have stayed, a lot of the teachers and directors. It’s the same [as it has always been] — I have a parent who went here, coming back with their daughter.”

When it was suggested to Pinsker that local preschools were unhappy with the idea of a district-run school opening in the area, she replied, “Why do you think that is? These are private businesses, unless they’re church-affiliated.”

Latta said her program, and most others, is not in it for money.

“Almost all of us are nonprofit,” Latta said. “I don’t know what the school district’s intention [or] motive is — we’re a nonprofit, and I’d say we’re here for the children, and that’s the No. 1 thing we’re looking at.”

The school district is currently working to set up a meeting with the consortium, along with community members, city council members and school board members.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated the school district did not share information regarding the preschool with the press. Spokespeople for the district indicated this is false, and the story has been updated in accordance with that information. 

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