Rotarians hear how Isabella Project focuses on preparing youngest Santa Paulans for a better future

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By Peggy Kelly

Santa Paula Times

Dr. Gabino Aguirre of Santa Paula speaks at a recent Santa Paula Parent Conference about the Isabella Project, which seeks to expand early childhood education.

Santa Paula Rotarians learned about the Isabella Project at their April 17 meeting where Dr. Gabino Aguirre discussed the program that focuses on the city’s youngest residents.

“As long as children have been born,” there has been a need for education that can begin even for infants already capable of learning. “When a child takes its first breath, that child starts to learn, grasp the reality of this place they were thrust into by no choice of their own.”

And, during a child’s first three or four years, up to 90% of their brain develops. “Children in need,” no matter the reason — poverty, bad health, emotional distancing, a tumultuous household, lack of care, etc. — “do not have all the support to be the best they can be.”

With 500 children born in Santa Paula each year and 900 children who are 4 and 5 years old, he said the Isabella Project — named after an actual child — couldn’t have come at a better time.
Through the Isabella Project, Aguirre said “We’ve learned that infants and young children have a greater capacity for learning than previously recognized,” with a tremendous growth in linguistic, cognitive, social, emotional, and motor competence.

“Since they are natural-born learners,” he noted, childcare and education cannot be thought of separately. Only 150 of area children ages 4 and 5 attend preschool and will be well ahead in learning skills by the time they attend kindergarten.

Research shows the others who do not attend preschool, said Aguirre, “will fall further and further behind.”

High-quality childcare and education should provide appropriate developmental experiences for young children and contribute toward physical and mental health and serve as the foundation for success in school and for reaching their highest potential in life.

Aguirre, a former mayor, noted, “Santa Paula is the center of the universe for all of us” and the Isabella Project Steering Committee is made up of many interested in early childhood development, including the Santa Paula Unified School District, which has opened two preschools.

The Ventura County Community Foundation is a strong sponsor by helping “our current providers meet the need in Santa Paula,” which will be stronger next year when 450 more children reach the age targeted for early education.

State and federal funds are also helping the project of Pre-K and Transitional Kindergarten classes as well as support for participating children and their families.

There are many partners in the program ranging from Child Development Resources (Head Start) to First 5, yet with many opportunities Aguirre said some are hesitant to enroll their children in early education.

“Some are saying, ‘My child is too young.’ Others say they have other care for their children,” while still say they need full-time care and how would that work with a school schedule.

Of the latter, Aguirre said, several programs offer all-day programs for children 3 to 5 years old.
He thanked the SPUSD for being “so inviting to other providers” and the countywide coalition of collaborators for their commitment to project, now in its third year.

The project also has consultants helping to lobby for funds for the project, which costs about $10,000 a year per child and generates millions back into the economy. Countywide, Aguirre said 12,000 preschool age children are not being served and the project’s steering committee hopes to expand the program.

There are even plans, he noted, for the Ventura County Community College District to widen its offerings for early childhood education professionals as well as for hospital personnel for the coming new facility in Santa Paula.

“We need to plan for the long-term sustainability,” said Aguirre. “Once we’re up and running we can package this for others… ”

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