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The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

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The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

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The Orfalea Early Learning Center offers support to student parents

The Orfalea Early Learning Center hosts the early childhood education program at City College, both serving as childcare for parents and a lab for students. The center works with kids from 2 years old to 5 years old. Photo courtesy of Kathy King.

Just a block north of City College are the swing sets, gardens, and classrooms of the Orfalea Early Learning Center – an extension of City College that allows student parents to drop off their children on weekdays. 

According to the staff of the Orfalea center, they grant parents the freedom to pursue their education and work to foster learning as well as creativity throughout their childcare.

During its initial opening in 1974, Orfalea was originally limited to infant-toddler care, but eventually opened a preschool in the early 2000s. Now, they care for children that range from six months to five years old. 

The limited space of five total classes puts the center in high demand, as evident from the enrollment waiting list that currently sits at nearly 200 applicants.

Director Beth Rizo has held her title for 16 years, continuing a 40-year career in education. With it, she takes on the task of enrolling new families into the program, prioritizing City College faculty or student parents if space opens up.

“Our goal is to support student-parents going to Santa Barbara City College to be successful in school and in life,” Rizo said.

Five total teachers make up the facility, with two caring for infant-toddlers and the other three teaching children above two years old in the preschool. Each class also welcomes both a morning and an afternoon intern.

The Orfalea Early Learning Center has many different stations to nurture children’s passions and learn from playing with the tools and resources in the center. Stations such as construction grocery store and more help children communicate, learn and play. Photo courtesy of Kathy King.

Rizo describes the education ideologies at Orfalea to focus on creativity and social interaction. The children spend most of the day outside without any direct instruction. 

“We are a play-based philosophy with the various aspects of learning integrated throughout,” Rizo said.

Orfalea also acts as a learning lab for students in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program at City College, each of whom are assigned a classroom to work in for the duration of the semester in order to learn the different aspects of working in childcare. While these lab students are not considered staff members, they commit to spending nine hours each week at the center in order to practice facilitating activities.

Sarah Giamoni spent her first semester as an Orfalea lab student in the infant-toddler class, supervised by teacher Kimberly Zermeno. Giamoni became interested in pursuing childcare as a career after dropping off her daughter at daycare for the first time and seeing the impact of the teachers in her daughter’s life.

“I realized that was where I was supposed to be,” Giamoni said. 

Giamoni organizes different types of activities each week to engage the children, such as avocado tastings, puppet shows, mixing cornstarch and water, or playing in the sandbox outside. Each activity Giamoni plans must incorporate each domain of learning for early childhood education, including social, cognitive, and language. Teachers and lab students observe the behavior and progress of each child during activities.

“It’s really about letting the children guide the curriculum,” Giamoni said. “I’m constantly looking for ways to continue to support them and watch them grow.”

While the lab students are still learning how to teach, the education that the school provides is dependent on what activities they plan. Head preschool teacher Alyssa Binder is in charge of arranging the curriculum based on their input. Giamoni explains the importance of planning every activity with intention behind it.

“It’s a very influential time in their lives,” Giamoni said. “It’s the foundation. And I love that I get to be a part of that.”

While other staff members and lab students work directly with the children, Rizo spends her time keeping things in order throughout the day. Random and unexpected tasks arise often, so she describes each day to be different from the last. The constant factor, says Rizo, is fostering a sense of community among staff and families.

The Orfalea Early Learning Center has many different play structures for kids in the center to play and communicate with each other. Photo courtesy of Kathy King.

“I think that one of the important aspects of my role is getting to know names and being able to talk to people by addressing them by name,” Rizo said. “I think that really says a lot to that relationship piece and building the community.”

As a result of these efforts, there is limited turnover of both the teachers and families of Orfalea. Even as a first-time lab student, Giamoni already expresses her interest in interning later on. She praises the staff for their constant support and feedback, and appreciates the sense of community that they provide.

“The kids love Beth,” Giamoni said. “Beth will pop into the class and it’s, like, the star of the show.”

An additional aspect of Rizo’s position is to understand each family’s particular situation and actively work to meet their needs, both in the classroom and outside of it, through meeting with other City College departments such as the Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS). She emphasizes the importance of valuing every individual family and embracing diversity.

“We all want to feel that we belong,” Rizo said. “I think we have a pretty exceptional program. I’d like to think that.”

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