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Early Learning
The Big Picture

A Conversation with Vanessa San-Martin, Director of Child Development


I am the Director for the Office of Child Development which encompasses the Pre-K programs as well as the morning and after school care for school-age children from Kindergarten to 5th grade. I have fourteen years of experience in early childhood education, and have experience working with various districts. 

What makes CCUSD unique? CCUSD is a small district, and everybody knows everybody. If there’s a sense of community, it’s within the teachers and administrators of all levels. Everyone has really grown up together. The superintendents went through the schools here and now they’re in charge of these schools. You can feel like an outsider coming in here because of this strong sense of family yet it also feels very welcoming. 

The sense of community and love is what makes this district and its teachers unique. The interaction between the children, teachers, and parents makes this strong sense of community and love. Students foster their relationships throughout school as they grow together. Thus, there is a sense of connectedness within the community that’s so strong that you could only find in CCUSD. 

Describe your vision for early childhood learning experience: My vision would be to have our pre-schools with our high-quality teachers continue the relationships they have that evoke this sense of community, while the teachers sustain their passion for their students, providing them with engaging extra-curricular activities to support them in their development and extension of necessary critical thinking skills. Teachers participating in multiple workshops for these types of additional educational pieces would support this vision. 

In order to facilitate doing these activities, we need to have spaces like the robotics and engineering learning environments to support inquiry-based learning. Our environment for after school must change to make it adaptable for school age children to have those enriching activities.  We need spaces that will empower them to engage in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). This is the direction CCUSD is moving towards.

Within ten years, all classrooms should have indoor-outdoor flow with all the resources that teachers need to facilitate the children’s creativity. Children could explore and use their critical thinking skills to do project-based learning as a foundation to expand into the high school program.

How should the outdoor environment change or look different in the future? It would have all the tools you would have inside, having many types of sensory materials for their learning through exploration and space for designed for naturalistic learning. Children should be outdoors at least one third of their day.

How should the student experience change or look different in the future? They will have a sense of freedom and physically-challenged students would have a free flow of access to have the same learning opportunities as their peers. 

They would have many ways to explore their world with their teachers facilitating learning in a Reggio Emilia inspired school setting which is an educational philosophy focused on Pre-K and primary education. The pedagogy is student-centered and constructivist in that it uses self-directed, experiential learning in relationship-driven environments. The program is student-led and based on the principles of respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery. It is based on the premise that children form their own personality during their early years of development and are endowed with "a hundred languages," through which they can express their ideas. The aim is to teach how to use these symbolic languages (e.g., painting, sculpting, drama) in everyday life.

Describe the process of facilitation: For the facilitation of learning, teachers need to be organized to do assessments. Additional pre-planning is needed to assess the children’s learning through observation using the Reggio Emilia inspired learning framework. The Reggio model is more reflective, and the teacher creates reflective reports of what the children do every day. 

Through DRDP (Desired Results Developmental Profile), reports teachers record individual progress toward the achievement of four desired results to assess if children are personally and socially competent, effective learners, show physical and motor competence and are safe and healthy. The teachers will evaluate number of children by understanding what they know through asking a series of questions and documenting their observations. Therefore, it’s all about the pre-planning. In the ideal world, the teacher will get about two hours of reflection time in a day, and a full day on Friday for the planning of the following week.

Is the current environment preventing you from achieving your vision, if at all? We are working towards better supporting social and emotional well-being.  The physical environment will play a big role in this effort. To illustrate, there is a lack of parking spaces for the parents to walk their children in to school and no space to conduct parent or teacher meetings. Building trust is the most important thing and making meaningful connections within the campus allows for that to happen. For parents to trust teachers, and teachers to trust parents, you need to make a meaningful connection where the communication happens. You must feel safe to let children play in outdoor spaces, and you need to trust children to use the technology appropriately.

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