TAKING BABY STEPS
Samara Bernal loves sitting up in a gazebo in a yard and looking around at her world.
There’s so much to see, so much to do, and the 10-month-old Carpinteria girl is just getting started.
“When I left for vacation, Samara was always lying down. When I came back, I found her sitting up and eating breakfast on her own,” Lucia Torres, site supervisor at the Early Head Start and Head Start center in Carpinteria, told the News-Press as the school Wednesday announced the opening of Santa Barbara County’s first classroom for infants.
The new Early Head Start classroom, designed for babies and toddlers from 3-months-old to 3-years-old, complements the Carpinteria facility’s three existing Head Start classrooms for ages 3 through 5. The school is overseen by the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County.
Samara is already learning a lot at the school, which is free for families who are at the federal poverty level or lower. Lessons have included how to applaud, and she now claps at home to her family’s delight.
“It’s wonderful to see the children go from one stage to another,” Mrs. Torres said about the youths’ development as they played in the outdoor area. The yard featured a sandbox, an art station, books and a kitchen.
Inside the school, the infant and toddler classroom has a small area for babies, complete with rocking chairs. The area also contains cribs and crawl rugs with educational toys.
The rest of the room features an area for both infants and toddlers and has child-sized tables and chairs and a book nook. There are also activity corners including a kitchen where toddlers can create imaginary masterpieces, an art station and a rack with shirts for those who want to play dress-up.
The room also offers cots for toddlers’ naps and something for the kids to reflect on.
“The mirrors are all about self-discovery,” Lorraine Neenan, the children’s services director, told the News-Press as she gave a tour.
The room has a ratio of one teacher for every two infants and one teacher for every four toddlers, with a maximum capacity for 12 children. Currently there are four babies with two teachers and eight toddlers with two teachers.
The classroom opened in November. Samara is among its first students.
Her mother, Elia Espinal, signed up the girl after hearing about the program at an English language class. She said in a CAC news release that Samara loves singing, stories and “baby-talking” with other infants.
The teachers talk to the babies and feed them food such as pureed bananas and yams. The toddlers in Early Head Start and older youths in Head Start get breakfast, lunch and snacks.
“These teachers get to know those kids very closely,” Ms. Neenan said.
Through eye contact and encouraging words, teachers help the babies to feel comfortable,
“If they feel comfortable, they will learn,” Ms. Neenan said. “You can’t force an infant to learn something. You have to do this in the context of a warm relationship.”
Educating children at such a young age makes a big difference and prepares them for kindergarten, she said.
Ninety percent of the children coming to the Head Start center, which also serves children ages 3 to 5, speak Spanish, Ms. Neenan said. “We encourage parents to maintain their home language in their home, and we teach them English here. By the time they leave, they’re bilingual.”
Early Head Start and Head Start teachers are required to have college degrees in early childhood education. An associate’s degree is the minimum requirement, and most have a bachelor’s.
Ms. Neenan said the center, which is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, teaches kids shapes, colors, letters, smells and basic arithmetic. Kids also sing, dance and create art such as drawings of their families.
The center also teaches social skills such as getting along with others, waiting your turn and how to express your needs, Ms. Neenan said.
Ms. Neenan said a recent report by the Santa Barbara County Child Care Planning Council shows that more 35,000 children in the county are estimated to need early care and education.
“There’s such a great need here in Santa Barbara County to care for infants and toddlers,” Patricia D. Keelean, the CAC executive director, told the News-Press. “Santa Barbara County has been designated the county with the third highest child poverty in the state, right behind Los Angeles and Santa Cruz counties.”
Ms. Neenan said CAC spent $40,000 to start the infant and toddler classroom. The money came from Head Start, which the federal government started in 1965; the state Department of Education; and private donors.
Ms. Neenan said she hopes to add more infant and toddler classrooms in Santa Maria.
During Wednesday’s announcement, Jim Carrillo of the Towbes Group presented a donation of $13,675 from its “Give Where You Live” program to Head Start.
Ms. Neenan said the money will go toward renovation of Head Start facilities in Santa Maria.
To learn more about Early Head Start or Head Start, call the program at 964-8857, ext. 1194, or go to www.cacsb.org.