DMUSD’s Child Development Center Preschool receives state Golden Bell Award

DMUSD Director of Pupil Services Cara Schukoske, second from left, and early childhood coordinator Marisa Tirri, third from left, accept the Golden Bell award in San Francisco.

By Karen Billing

The Del Mar Union School District’s Child Development Center (CDC) Preschool was recently named the recipient of the Golden Bell Award from the California School Board Association (CSBA). The Golden Bell Awards celebrate excellence in education by recognizing outstanding programs in the state and the joyful CDC, which integrates special education and general education youngsters, was honored for its success.

Children do yoga at the CDC.

“The CSBA said they were impressed with the way that we integrated services with special education and general education across the board,” said Marissa Tirri, the coordinator of early childhood education. “Things aren’t done in isolation here. It’s a development program and students are in rooms and groups for a reason. It’s not based on what we have, it’s based on what they need.”

Tirri credits her “exceptional” staff on ensuring student progress and making their program so popular.

“I’ve worked in all parts of the county and the staff in Del Mar really loves their jobs and it shows in the work they do with the students. It’s intoxicating; their passion makes you more passionate about what you do. It’s an awesome program to support.”

Tirri went to the awards ceremony at the St. Regis in San Francisco to receive the award with Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Holly McClurg, Director of Pupil Services Cara Schukoske and District Board President Scott Wooden.

“I didn’t realize how important this award was until we were sitting in a room surrounded by people who do amazing things in education,” Tirri said of her fellow award recipients, such as those who have programs for homeless students or run school-based, no-cost dental clinics for underserved children.

Because the award is so prestigious, Tirri said the bell, which actually rings, will soon find a safer home at the district office, rather than on her desk.

The CDC Preschool has been at Sycamore Ridge for three years, moving from the old district office at the Shores property. Over the summer, the preschool was split between Sycamore Ridge and Ashley Falls — Ashley Falls has the babies, 6 weeks old to 2 year olds, solely staff member children; Sycamore houses children 3 to 5 years old and is open to the community.

“If I had more space I could always use it but what we have now is the perfect amount of space,” Tirri said. “ The Ashley Falls classrooms were created specially for their little sizes.”

At the CDC, there are two special education preschool classes and one general education class. Students are being prepped for kindergarten using the Big Day for Pre-K curriculum, which features pre-literary skills and readings and play-based learning. All of the classrooms have at least two teachers.

“The reason the program is so great is because the staff here is exceptional. They are dedicated, there’s not a lot of turnover, they love the students and are all incredibly knowledgeable and creative, finding ways to teach the program in a fun way,” Tirri said.

A lot of the day (which is 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or a half-day, 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) is spent mainstreaming the special education children — the CDC children go into their classrooms and special education children will go into CDC classrooms.

This interaction helps children to bond and navigate social skills. The special education students also eat their lunches with general education children, as well as play on the playground together.

“It’s a very rare thing to do reverse and typical mainstreaming, and to have the classrooms so available,” Tirri said.

Every day children come to class with a schedule — they are given three choices of activities they can do (one day last week was books, art or blocks) and then the class comes together for a structured play activity.

For the holidays, children set up a store. The “customers” shopped and then selected a small, medium or large box which the “employees” then practiced ringing up with a cash register and wrapping the gift.

The 3-year-olds classroom recently smelled like gingerbread as they had just baked cookies and the “gym” had an obstacle course of things to slide down or climb through with packing peanuts acting as snow.

The gym is also where the students have done yoga this year.

The preschool’s occupational therapist brings in her therapeutic service dog Mr. T about four times a week and he serves as a great complement and incentive during lessons.

“Every teacher has great ideas, we are never short on fun activities here,” Tirri said.

Tirri said it was the district’s Director of Early Childhood Julie Geisbauer’s idea to apply for the Golden Bell and together they crafted their application. A CSBA representative was sent to the school and spent about two hours with Tirri checking out what makes their program so successful.

“She was really excited about the program,” Tirri said of the representative. “We established a good connection to support other pre-kindergartens in the county to mimic what we have here.”

At the CDC, Tirri stays busy, coordinating the program and spending time in every classroom every day. She knows all the students, their parents and what the students had for lunch that day — it has become a very close-knit family community. They are even working on having their own PTA as parents have been so supportive and want to do more to support the program

“It has surpassed any of the expectations I had, ” Tirri said of the CDC. “ It’s unique and we have so much fun. The children who come through here know the ropes and they’re ready to go to school.”