Montecito: optimizing early-childhood learning

Photo By: Photo courtesy of Montecito
Photo Photo Courtesy Of Montecito Children engage in indoor and outdoor play as well as hands-on learning at Montecito School in Los Altos. The preschool has contracted with early-childhood specialists to refine its curriculum.

Montecito School, a Los Altos preschool, has teamed up with early education experts to enhance the school’s quality through an in-depth examination and assessment of its teaching practices.

Montecito, in operation since 1960, boasts a play-based philosophy that aims to bridge children’s toddler years to a successful future in elementary and secondary education.

After reviewing new national and regional guidelines for best practices in early childhood learning, Montecito officials contracted with local early-childhood specialists Gayle Mayekawa of Foothill College and Dionne Clabaugh of De Anza College to optimize Montecito’s curriculum at the preschool level.

Mayekawa, an education consultant for child development programs, specializes in leadership coaching, curriculum planning and program design.

Clabaugh, Montecito’s new curriculum coordinator, focuses on early-education instructional design, teacher mentoring and program assessment.

For the tools to measure best practices, Montecito looked to the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s “Early Learning Master Plan,” developed by a team of approximately 100 education professionals, civic leaders and child-development advocates in 2010. The plan envisions a teaching model that takes a developmental approach to learning and aligns preschool curriculum with the K-3 curriculum.

“Historically, Montecito has sought to provide a quality program. We now aim to increase this quality by building a program around early education best practices,” Clabaugh said. “All classes and activities will support each child’s development in an environment of teacher-facilitated and child-initiated activities that are both developmentally and culturally appropriate.”

Traditionally, Montecito provided a preschool curriculum designed around a play-based philosophy where children learned basic academic skills through hands-on experiences. With Clabaugh and Mayekawa’s efforts toward creating a program based on early-learning best practices, the school plans to continue and strengthen the tradition of play-based curriculum as initiated 50 years ago.

Montecito’s mission isn’t limited to its school – it’s intended for the community as a whole. The preschool educators want to provide a model for the local educational community for how to best provide early-childhood learning.

“We understand that a high-quality learning environment requires strategic planning of activities, assessment of room arrangement and high-quality instructional practices that demonstrate respect for each child,” said Erin Mobley, Montecito School director. “Our commitment is to be a ‘Model of Excellence’ for the community of Los Altos.”


What to look for

in a preschool

Mayekawa shared tips on what local parents should look for in a preschool program. No. 1 is how teachers interact with the children.

For example, parents might observe a child play with blocks, dump them and walk away, line them up, stack them or use them to represent an experience.

“Given how children use the blocks, the teacher will make comments about what the child is doing so that children are exposed to concepts of math, science and language,” she said.

A teacher could support problem-solving by challenging the student to make the same type of structure with blocks of different shapes, and then discuss the changes.

At Montecito, teaching professionals now have an early-childhood education expert in their classrooms to observe and coach their interactions with students.

Continuous professional development is important to keep educators informed and up to speed with best practices, Mayekawa said.

Mayekawa and Clabaugh are collaborating with Montecito teachers this year to empower them with specific classroom strategies and to coach them on how to design activities that best support child development.


Indoor and outdoor play

“When parents look at a school, they should look for indoor and outdoor learning environments which are safe, accessible and inviting to young children while also being developmentally (age) and culturally appropriate,” Mayekawa said.

The outdoors in early-childhood learning is “one of the most valuable areas for children to develop skills that will serve them throughout their lives,” Mayekawa said.

On an ordinary day at Montecito, children could be riding bikes, pulling wagons, playing on a tree swing, walking a balance beam or looking for insects on the 2-acre campus.

But indoor education is important as well, and Montecito features six different indoor learning centers: blocks, dramatic play, science, listening/writing, music and story/quiet corner.

The learning centers are furnished with age-appropriate materials accessible to promote exploration, a skill that supports language acquisition and cognitive development.

“Children develop at different rates, so materials in each learning center reflect varying degrees of challenge and are rotated to provide new opportunities to support children’s intellectual growth,” Mayekawa said.

Mayekawa and Clabaugh said they are confident that, given the commitment of Montecito’s staff, the preschool can become a model school to serve not only its member families, but also the community. School officials hope the program becomes a training environment for early-childhood education students working to become teachers.

“Montecito has chosen the path of educational excellence, and seeks to refine the philosophy and teaching practices to model each area of quality in the Santa Clara County Master Plan,” Mayekawa said. “This level of education should be accessible to all children and to all families in our community.”

Montecito School is located at 1468 Grant Road in Los Altos. For more information, visit

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