Resumption of operation of the full-day/full-year General Childcare Program by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) starting in February was recommended at the district school board meeting Thursday, November 2nd.

The General Childcare Program, which was operated by the district’s Child Development Services, was relinquished by the district in 2002 “because it wasn’t cost-effective,” said Judy Abdo, director of child development for the district.

“We couldn’t continue to pay for the program with the amount of money the state was providing [through a grant],” Abdo said. “So, because the community in general wanted the program to continue, several of us sat down and formed a collaborative between SMC [Santa Monica College], Easter Seals and the district.”

Easter Seals — a charitable organization that provides services for individuals with disabilities or special needs and their families, and also operates some child development centers — agreed to operate and staff the preschool, the district offered its space at no cost, and Santa Monica College agreed to put in additional funds (approximately $100,000) so the preschool program could continue. That’s how the program has worked ever since, Abdo said.

This is all articulated in a memorandum of understanding (MOU), said deputy superintendent Tim Walker.

“The district gave up the [grant] funds that the state paid the district to run the program and those funds then went to Easter Seals to continue the operation,” Abdo said. The state provides “somewhat more than $600,000” a year, Abdo said.

However, now, with the continued financial help of SMC and a collaboration with Headstart, the district would be able to afford the cost of the preschool program.

“Funds would no longer be an issue,” Abdo said.

Over the past year and a half, there has also been some concern over what was described as a large turnover of staffing and a change of director in the preschool program, Walker said.

“The ability to provide consistent staffing by Easter Seals is problematic,” he said. “With inconsistent staffing, the program can be affected, and therefore the delivery of quality services becomes a question.

“As part of the MOU and the current provider of the facilities, SMMUSD wants to ensure that any program that is housed at our sites is providing a program that is focused on meeting the needs of the children and families in our community.

“With the return of the grant money to SMMUSD, we believe that we can address the staffing issue and build a consistent team and program that improves the delivery of the services provided.”

Because the preschool program was a “discussion” item on the school board’s agenda, there was no formal decision, but Abdo says she thought the feedback from the board was good.

“The board members all spoke very positively about the program,” Abdo said.

If, in the future, this item is brought to the board to make a formal decision on resuming the preschool program, only a few things would be different, Abdo said.

“The state money that funds the program would go to the district instead of Easter Seals,” Abdo said, and “Easter Seals would no longer be involved in the program.”

Santa Monica College helps fund the preschool program because it doesn’t have childcare on campus and it has students who need childcare, so they want a place close by that offers those services, said Abdo.

Approximately 84 children are enrolled in the preschool program that operates at Washington West, where the district’s Child Development Services office is located, and John Adams Child Development Center (on the John Adams Middle School campus). The program would remain at these two locations if resumed by the district and is available ten and a half hours throughout the day, from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“It’s year-round, including winter, spring and summer break, so it’s a program aimed specifically to serve working parents,” Abdo said.

Asked what kind of staffing would be required by the district to operate the three classrooms at John Adams and one at Washington West, Abdo couldn’t give an exact number.

“At all times, there are required state minimums for the ratio on how many adults to children and we [the district] would abide by those guidelines,” she said.

Abdo did say that each of the four classrooms would probably have one full-time teacher, one part-time teacher and classroom assistants. These teachers would be employed by the district.

Abdo thinks there are several reasons why the district should resume the preschool program.

“Right now, the district does not offer any full-day childcare for preschoolers and there’s a great need in our community for full-day childcare for preschool children,” she said.

The possibility of the district resuming the childcare program will be discussed with Santa Monica College and Easter Seals, probably within the next two weeks, Abdo said.

“Our staff will be meeting with the college and Easter Seals to talk about a transition, to talk about next steps,” she said.

Right now, the district will be writing a letter to the state asking for a review of the grant that Easter Seals holds for the preschool program, Walker said.

“We will be working with Easter Seals to assume the responsibility of the grant, staffing and program,” Walker said. “If the issues present themselves in a manner that will allow us to move forward with assurance that the program will return to the district in a cost-neutral manner, we will bring the item back to the board with a recommendation to approve the return of the grant [to the district].”