Del Mar Union School District preschool still thriving with ‘unified’ program

By Karen Billing

The Del Mar Union School District board received an update about the district’s preschool at its Dec. 18 meeting as it has been a topic of discussion in the ongoing facilities master planning process. Finding a permanent home for the preschool is one of the goals of the master plan and one proposed idea is moving it from Sycamore Ridge Elementary School, which is facing a growing school population, into new buildings constructed at Torrey Hills Elementary School.

Both Marisa Tirri, coordinator of early childhood, and Julie Geisbauer, director of early childhood, are participating in the outreach group meetings on the master plan, as well as several preschool families to ensure that their needs and concerns are being taken into account.

“We feel like we’re really being heard,” Tirri said of their representation in the process.

DMUSD’s preschool won a Golden Bell Award last year from the California School Board Association for being one of the outstanding educational programs in the state, integrating special education and general education youngsters. The district has a federal requirement that to the maximum extent appropriate, students should be educated alongside non-disabled children.

In 1993, the district created tuition-based employee child care at the district office while special education preschool was at a separate site four days a week. Geisbauer said that, in 2010, the district staff identified the value of bringing the employee childcare and special education programs together and that vision landed them at Sycamore Ridge with a unified program.

DMUSD preschool students (3 to 5 years old) are referred throughout the year with concerns regarding academics, speech, motor skills and behavior. The district program specialist meets with the families to develop an assessment plan, and the full preschool assessment team meets to determine eligibility.

Special education services are provided immediately to any student who moves into the DMUSD that has had services in another district — Del Mar has had five of those students in the last three months.

There are a total of 35 preschoolers in general education and 55 preschoolers in special education preschool. In the 20-hour-a-week program, 90 percent of the population are on the autism spectrum, Tirri said.

All of the students interact and bond together, learning social skills. They read books and play together in structured activities and get active in the “gym” on obstacle courses to help develop motor skills. The preschool’s occupational therapist also brings in a therapeutic service dog, Mr. T, four times a week.

“The amazing feature of our preschool is that we’re blessed to have it all on one campus,” Geisbauer said. “The preschool as a whole is unified and it has allowed collaboration between staff and parents and yielded success for every child to be ready for kindergarten. It’s a tremendous asset.”