Solana Beach School District ‘Teacher of the Year’ spearheaded district’s first transitional kindergarten class

By Karen Billing

Solana Vista School’s Shawntanet Jara has been named the Solana Beach School District “Teacher of the Year” after successfully launching the district’s first transitional kindergarten class this year.

This is the first year transitional kindergarten has been implemented in California in an effort to reach those children whose birthdays are in the fall, instead of starting kindergarten too early and risking falling behind. Per the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010, for the 2012-13 school year, students must be 5 on Nov. 1. The date moves to Oct. 1 for 2013-14 and Sept. 1 for the 2014-15 school year.

All of Jara’s students will turn 5 in October or November.

Parents with students on the cusp of the deadlines have tough decisions to make, whether to wait or start their children in kindergarten and many are unsure what to do, Jara said TK offers them an answer.

“It’s not preschool but it’s not kindergarten,” Jara said. “It’s a lovely opportunity. It’s truly the gift of time to the youngest of children, to really get them ready.”

The Solana Beach district is the only in the area to offer it and Jara’s class includes students whose home schools are Carmel Creek and Solana Highlands. Her class has hosted visitors from the Fallbrook and Encinitas school districts looking to observe the new class in action.

Jara found out she was the district’s “Teacher of the Year” at an afternoon assembly, suspiciously spotting her husband and 4-year-old daughter Lena in the audience (her oldest Zoe, is in kindergarten at Solana Vista).

“I started piecing it together after I saw him and the superintendent and the assistant superintendent and the principal,” Jara said. “It was humbling for sure, it’s hard to be able to take it when you work with people who are work just as hard and are just as good as you, even better. I try to enjoy it but at the same time recognize that everybody is working hard. This is a wonderful staff.”

Jara has been a teacher for 16 years and this is her eighth year at Solana Vista. She previously taught second and first grade before taking on the challenge of transitional kindergarten.

Jara’s father was in the military, which meant a lot of moving around as a kid—by the time she graduated high school she was in her 13th school. Even with all that experience at those multiple schools, she wasn’t yet set on becoming a teacher.

Jara started working as a substitute teacher but still thought of teaching as just a stop on her journey toward becoming an attorney or attaching a “Dr.” before her name.

“I met two teachers who changed it all for me,” Jara said. “They taught from inspiration, not so much from a textbook or a curriculum guide. I saw a freedom, that you can really teach from where your passions are.”

Transitional kindergarten has become an ideal landing spot for Jara as it allows her the freedom to build what she wants the program to be. Within an hour of the notice being posted that the district was looking to hire from within for the TK teacher position, Jara had her application letter written up.

In Jara’s TK, students learn to read and they are writing every day. They do math, health and wellness exercises, and a lot of storytelling.

“My passion is fairy tales and art,” said Jara who added that she makes school “juicy” for the kids with elements of the Common Core State Standards (there are none yet for TK), as well as borrowing teaching tools from Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia teaching approaches.

As a nod to the Waldorf style of teaching, her students do embroidery, sewing and Jara tries to bring in a lot of elements of nature — there are fresh flowers on every table and tree stumps serve as chairs.

One stump in the corner serves as a “Peace Table,” something Jara has always had in her classrooms for conflict resolution. Whenever students have an issue they go to the table where a prompt reads “I did not like it when...” The student must be holding a marble heart stone in order to speak, and they go back and forth talking until they’ve said everything they need to say.

“When they leave they have to end with a handshake or a hug and say ‘Friends’ or ‘Peace’ and life goes on. They do such a wonderful job there, all without the aid of the teacher,” Jara said.

In Jara’s classroom there are cheerful flowers dangling from the ceiling, a puppet theater, roomy dollhouse and Indian elephant artwork, and just one piece of the class’s Global World Carnival in which they did art projects from Australia, Africa, Mexico and Ecuador.

Hands-on learning is a must in her classroom. She said children love getting a bunch of raw materials and creating something out of nothing.

When her students were reading “The Three Little Pigs,” Jara brought in bundles of sticks so the kids could build their own house.

“It’s so much fun, they have such a wonderful time acting out stories,” Jara said.

The way Jara is in the classroom is a reflection of her personal life. Her family are “urban farmers” in Carlsbad and raise their own veggies and have three chickens, steadily producing eggs. Jara said it’s important to show her girls how much they can do on their own — in addition to the farming work, when they want new clothes they typically head to the fabric store and sew their own.

“I think that’s how you make memories too,” Jara said.

She very much enjoys working in Solana Beach and is grateful that the district got on board with TK and has allowed her to be a trailblazer.

“This is such a supportive, nurturing, loving community of teachers and families that really make you feel like there’s nothing you can’t do,” said Jara. “It gives you the perception that the sky’s the limit.”