Our Local California State Pre-K Programs: Starlight & TJC prepare our little ones for success in kindergarten and beyond


Photo caption: Jose Rocha, site director at the Starlight State Preschool, helps make reading fun for one of his students.  

By Molly Lautamo

Developing a child’s emotional and social skills before age five is a critical step that helps set that child up for success in elementary school and beyond. The California State Preschool Program (State Pre-K), a state-funded program of Encompass, provides a safe space for children ages three and four to learn how to interact with other children and adults and develop the math, language, and literary skills necessary for a smooth entry into kindergarten.

Santa Cruz County’s two South County centers, Starlight and the Terry Jimenez Center (TJC), make a huge difference in the lives of many Watsonville families. The three and four year olds at the preschools sometimes enter with little to no proficiency in math or reading, and a few children struggle with basic language skills.

Assessments conducted in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, however, showed large improvements within a year of entering the program, with the four year olds about to enter kindergarten scoring well above 90% in math, language, and literacy.

Both centers also received high scores on the QRIS (Quality Rating Improvement System) Quality Matrix, based on direct observation of how the staff interacts with the children, the teaching environment, and what resources the programs have to offer.

The Key to Success

Site director at Starlight, Jose Rocha, says that the key to their successful program is empowerment of the teachers, children, and their parents. “I don’t call anyone an ‘assistant’ teacher,” says Rocha. “Every teacher brings so much experience [to the job] which is what makes it such a high-quality, unique program.”

Rocha and the other directors also empower the parents by seeking their advice and input into their child’s education. “We ask them, ‘What did you do for fun as a child? What types of activities do you want for your kid?’”

Rocha explains that depending on the parents’ answers, they may have water activities everyday or cooking activities two times a week – the teachers are always trying to incorporate the parents’ feedback into their teaching strategies throughout the year. The parents are also encouraged, but not required, to come to the center and help with these activities, giving them the opportunity to spend more time with their kids and other parents.

“Opening the doors for the parents to come in [to the school] allows us to form a partnership, build trust, and learn from the family about child development,” says Rocha. “We might have the knowledge from the research, but they have knowledge that is cultural, which is really good for us.”

Filling a Crucial Role

Rocha’s dream, before getting involved with Starlight, was to become a kindergarten teacher. Once he saw how much impact he could have on a child’s life at ages 3 and 4, he chose to remain with the State Pre-K program instead.

Rocha explains that kindergarten teachers don’t have time to focus on conflict resolution skills and emotional and social development. “Children need self esteem to try new things or they will be intimidated when they don’t know the answer,” says Rocha. “I feel like I’m filling a crucial role here [at Starlight], that I wouldn’t be able to fill as a kindergarten teacher.”

Eduardo Marin, teaching director at the TJC site, values the chance he has to work with children during the most crucial time of brain development – ages 0-5. “I love working with the children one on one,” says Marin, “making them laugh, and feel happy and appreciated.”

The Starlight and TJC centers are incredibly important to this community, especially to low-income families that don’t qualify for Head Start, yet can’t afford or don’t have access to a private preschool in their neighborhood. These programs can mean the difference between a child falling behind in elementary school and having a real chance at success.

For more information on our local State Pre-K programs, please contact Isabel Lopez at 831-724-3885.