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LAUSD wants preschool to be more fun, launches new curriculum

Children at Glassell Park Elementary school work on a painting project using sponges. This is one of LAUSD's 169 new ETK classrooms.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC
Children at Glassell Park Elementary school work on a painting project using sponges. This is one of LAUSD's 169 new ETK classrooms.

With stubby legs and googly eyes, large ears and a red lightening bolt of hair, a furry green critter called “Z” is the new face of early learning for preschoolers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Z is headlining the implementation of a new curriculum -- one that moves away from previous academic-heavy preschool teaching to a play-based model that emphasizes emotional development and social interaction, according to district officials.

“Z is not a he. Z is not a she. Z is just Z,” Deborah Keys told district teachers at a recent training session. Keys is a trainer from Sanford Harmony, the company that created the curriculum. The cuddly toy is a teaching prop. “Z is an alien who has come down to earth and needs to know and learn how to interact with human beings,” she said.

For the few dozen teachers in the room, many of whom have taught preschool for years, the training is also part of a district push to increase professional development opportunities, according to Martha Borquez, LAUSD director of early education.

Teachers are so busy with their day-to-day tasks that they are often the last ones to learn of advances in their field, she said.

“Brain research has really brought forth the fact that children learn through play,” said Borquez, an early educator and former center director. The new curriculum, she added, gives teachers more creative ways to teach academic concepts and allow children to interact and learn from each other.

Teachers were not just given plush toys for their classrooms; splayed out on tables in front of them were colorful story books, a box of cards with activity ideas, CDs with educational songs, and a detailed curriculum to draw it all together.

The curriculum is a step in the right direction, said teacher Karina Ceja from Child Fair Early Education Center. “With the old curriculum, we did see a lot of drilling,” she said. There was an “expectation,” she said, that preschoolers should enter kindergarten “knowing the complete alphabet, knowing the numbers.”

This kind of repetitive, rote learning did happen, Borquez agreed. Teaching early literacy and numeracy, even basic social and emotional concepts — like sharing or not saying hurtful things — often required preschoolers to sit at a desk and fill out worksheets.

“Once you do enough worksheets," Borquez said, "it doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s just something you do automatically."

The new curriculum was designed by Sanford Harmony, an education organization based at National University and started by T.Denny Sanford, a billionaire bank owner and philanthropist.

The organization's website states: “Harmony provides teachers with a set of tools to develop stronger social connections among students, and foster positive peer relationships that will enable students to thrive at school.”

The company said the curriculum is being used in 10,000 classrooms nationwide. LAUSD’s adoption of the curriculum makes it the largest single school district to implement the Sanford Harmony method.

The new curriculum will be used for all of LAUSD’s 30,000 preschool aged students by next school year, and was entirely donated to the district, according to Dean Tagawa, executive director of early education.

“After Denny Sanford visited a couple of our Early Education Centers and hearing that the majority of children are low-income, single-parent status, or foster youth, he really wanted to help us, so he donated all the curriculum,” Tagawa said. 

Sanford is worth about $1.77 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He makes his money from a bank he started in Sioux Falls that “specializes in offering high-risk borrowers cards with steep interest rates and low credit limits,” according to Forbes.

It’s a business practice not without controversy. Sanford’s banking practices have been criticized -- and subject to lawsuits -- for its targeting of the poor borrowers. According to Forbes magazine, his bank has 12 branches that continue to be highly profitable.

LAUSD and Sanford Harmony could not immediately state the value of Sanford's donation.