© Lisa Shara; Published in North State Parent, January 2014
In a setting best described as welcoming and warm, where diversity is honored and creativity abounds, children go about the business of learning with great enthusiasm. Smiling teachers clearly are having as much fun as they guide students in discovery and play. The inspiration is palpable.
With a strong shared vision, owner and director Maria Trenda opened the Mi Escuelita Maya Preschool & Children’s Performing Arts Program in Chico in August of 2007 with then-partner Benita Chavez-Humble. By its third year of operation, the community response to the preschool was so positive that a waiting list for enrollment became a necessity.
Many aspects make Mi Escuelita Maya special, including: its emphasis on multiculturalism; its high regard for the arts and for providing ongoing arts experiences; and its core value of fostering age-appropriate learning in an environment in which children uniquely develop cognitive, emotional, physical, social and cultural skills needed for success in future school experiences.
Close to 100 families are currently involved with the school. The preschool program offers morning and afternoon sessions with participants typically starting at age 3. In response to requests from parents of the school’s graduates, an afterschool program was developed for a small group of students up to age 12. The school’s roster includes many siblings, and its families’ roots hail from across the globe, including Italy, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, China, India, Nepal, Peru, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Cuba and Greece, as well as Ethiopia and Ghana, Africa.
In the school’s dance studio, children are introduced to the world of dance through a modality called “Braindancing.” The children dance daily, with a focus on developmental movement patterns as well as technique, and participation is optional. “We don’t make them dance; they can choose to sit and watch and be the audience, or they can perform.” Maria says. “Both experiences have value.”
Maria shares the story of a student who always chose to be an observer during dance classes. Halfway through the school year, he joined in the dance warm-up. “The fact that he stepped out of his comfort zone was huge,” says Maria, and is a reflection of the inherent growth that takes place in an environment that supports choice.
A big part of the school’s success is due to its teachers, Maria shares. “They love spending time with this age group; they have a passion for it.” Most of the teachers are bilingual (Spanish language enrichment is part of the program), and they embody the values of the school, serving as role models to the children and the school’s interns. During the summer, the school also collaborates with CSU, Chico’s Upward Bound program, and the Migrant Education program of Butte County Office of Education.
Children learn in many different ways, and the school provides a plethora of opportunities for children to experiment with different learning styles, in a respectful environment where educational goals are reached through hands-on experiences. “We truly believe in play,” says Maria. “Children need hands-on experiences to acquire and integrate knowledge.”
The school utilizes two primary program styles: A child-led open-classroom approach honors the “flow” of individual students as they engage in activities of their own choosing. A teacher-guided approach offers projects and experiences designed to cultivate specific developmental skills, such as concrete thinking and self-regulation.
Children are separated into age groups for specific play and learning activities; other times they come together in groups of blended ages, which fosters peer learning and respect among peers.
The student-to-teacher ratio is 1 – 6, allowing teachers to focus on facilitating the learning process of each student. The school also has interns through programs of California State University, Chico, and Butte College. As future teachers, the interns help create an even more personal environment at the school.
Each month the school’s curriculum centers around distinctive themes, including a focus on a specific country. The children learn about the clothing, books, music and dance from each culture studied, and they cook and eat its foods.
Students also attend live cultural performances. When there isn’t a related performance to go to, professional artists are brought to the school and share their talents to further develop the month’s theme.
In turn, students bring cultural enrichment to the community as performers. Each September, for example, students perform on stage at the Chico World Music Festival. The school’s annual Winter Celebration and Mother’s Day events typically feature about 70 student performers.
The school’s holistic approach includes a food program that serves organic local foods whenever possible, made fresh from scratch. The multicultural themes carry through as children participate in cooking – and of course, eating – foods from different cultures. In the school’s garden, the children learn how things grow as they plant seeds and help care for, harvest and cook the garden’s yield.
Maria considers herself blessed to be doing this work, and underscores the importance of preschool education by describing the preschool years as “the golden stage of human development.”
Mi Escuelita Maya Preschool & Children’s Performing Arts Program is located at 1455 Chestnut St. in Chico. For more information visit www.mempreschool.com or call (530) 893-1419.