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01/04/2021

First 5 LA | Parents take on teaching without walls

For many parents on lengthy waitlists to enroll their children in early learning programs, the fear of having their children fall behind in their cognitive and socio-emotional growth is very real.

Maria Mayoral had twice as many reasons to worry.

The mother of 3-year-old twin boys, Nathan and Levy, Mayoral had been on the preschool waiting list for months at the Lancaster School District.

“I was feeling like they are going to be behind in their learning,” Mayoral recalled. “I was trying to get any resources I could to teach them at home. On the internet, I was printing out letters, shapes and colors.”

While the state has permitted preschools and other early learning facilities to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands have closed. As of the latest numbers from September, 36 percent of family child care homes and 63 percent of child care centers have shut their doors in Los Angeles County. As a result, parents are finding it harder than ever to find early learning opportunities for their children.

Fortunately, the stay-at-home mom was involved in her community, including meetings in Lancaster with Best Start, First 5 LA’s primary investment to promote community engagement, collaboration and leadership to give children their best start in 14 historically low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in L.A. County.

Mayoral heard about Preschool Without Walls (PWW), which offers two hours of weekly free early education classes for children birth to age 5 in six locations throughout Palmdale and Lancaster. Funded in part by Best Start Lancaster and Palmdale, the Antelope Valley’s six PWW classes are held outside of a traditional school setting: in parks, community wellness centers and — in Mayoral’s case — the neighboring Terra Nova Mobile Home Park in Lancaster.

She quickly enrolled her twins.

“It was their first time in school,” Mayoral recalled. “My boys love it. They have fun activities. They dance and sing the alphabet. They have learned their letters, colors, shapes and numbers. Their motor skills have improved. They raise their hands when they want to speak. They’ve learned how to share. And they get excited when they have homework to do at home.”

Unlike most early education, PWW requires parents to participate in the classes with their children. Another unique aspect: in the Antelope Valley, the classes are taught by parent volunteers.

“For me, it’s more than okay that teachers are parents. The teachers are really good with the kids,” Mayoral said. “And I’m so happy that parents are able to be with their kids. It helps me be a better parent because I’m seeing how they are learning and how they are growing.”

Parent-teacher volunteers in the Antelope Valley receive STEM-based training and other educational skills from Strength-Based Community Change (SBCC), a First 5 LA grantee and partner that originated the PWW classes in the South Bay in 2001.

“The trainings include information on what children need to successfully enter kindergarten,” said SBCC’s Erika Schwerdt, who serves as the Local Network Community Organizer for Best Start Region 5 of Lancaster and Palmdale. “The curriculum parents learned was based on a learn-by-playing style. It lets parents understand what is happening in a child’s brain when they sing a song or do a certain craft.”

PWW addresses the critical areas of child development through a curriculum that focuses on early literacy, mathematics, colors, songs, STEM-based themes and open-ended activities aligned with the themes of the week or month. Classroom activities may include reading a book aloud; learning letters, shapes, numbers and colors; dancing and singing; and engaging in a craft or art activity (possibly tied to a letter, as in drawing an elephant for the letter “E”).

The Antelope Valley PWW program began in 2017 as a pilot project in Jackie Robinson Park. While it was modeled after the South Bay PWW program, the two are not related. However, both programs share the goal of preparing children to be ready for school and an understanding that parents should learn alongside their children in preschool because a parent is a kid’s first teacher.

“It was different in the way we empowered the parents to take on the role of the teacher,” Schwerdt said. “Long Beach PWW uses hired teaching staff and paid assistants. Our PWW model gives the opportunity for parents to demonstrate their skills and to be accountable for what the kids are learning.”

“You can compare it to a pop-up preschool idea,” said PWW Director Dalilia Cornejo Jones of SBCC.  “PWW’s original name was Preschool on Wheels because it used to be a mobile program in a van. We later partnered with local parks, libraries and community centers where we established set locations.”

“We call it Preschool Without Walls because we can set up anywhere,” said Best Start Palmdale partnership member Marcia Sanchez, who leads SBCC’s PWW effort in the Antelope Valley.

This flexibility came in handy during the pandemic, when Terra Nova PWW, which met outside in the mobile home park, remained open for in-person classes with safety precautions. This included temperature checks, mask-wearing, using hand sanitizer and prebagged classroom materials, as well as seating family units at their own tables six feet apart. In October, colder weather put Terra Nova’s in-person class on hiatus through January.

Read more on First 5 LA’s website.

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