Courtesy Photo

Mobile Waterford made its third daily stop last Thursday at Parque de los Niños on Wentworth Avenue, where the vibrantly painted van settles curbside to allow eight four-year-olds onboard at a time for 20 minutes of computerized English lessons that, over the next year, promise to culminate in kindergarten readiness.

Sponsored by the Santa Barbara Education Foundation since 2007, Mobile Waterford is described as a “bookmobile style” van with eight computer stations onboard, as well as two certified teachers to lead the vehicle’s young passengers through exercises that promote kindergarten readiness and stronger English language skills. A sort of classroom-on-wheels, the van makes four daily stops in area neighborhoods over the course of a full year to prepare 100 rotating students for kindergarten the next fall.

At their mobile computer stations, pre-kindergarteners use the Waterford Literacy Software Program, an early learning program designed by the nonprofit Waterford Institute to increase English fluency. The series of 4,500 computerized activities cover basics like lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers, phonological awareness, names of human body parts, and sound blending, which are gradually integrated as the students progress to more advanced levels. Instructors Maria Elena Millings and Evelyn Tenesaca wander among the four-year-olds as they work and stop periodically to offer guidance, although the software seems to offer a surprising level of autonomy to its young audience.

Progress is tracked individually, meaning each Mobile Waterford student completes the software program at his or her own pace during the daily 20-minute sessions. According to Millings, some children stay with the program for more than one year as a result. More important than timely completion, she says, is familial support during the learning process. Mobile Waterford offers supplemental services to “integrate the family,” as Millings puts it, especially if a student’s parents also struggle with English. A second set of headphones is available at each learning station should parents want to listen in, and they also receive a booklet of charts and activities to help their children practice English at home.

Area resident Leodara Salado sits behind her son Felix at Thursday’s 11 a.m. session as he clicks furiously away, the world around him muffled by headphones that form a comically large frame around his tiny furrowed features. She says Felix’s older sisters often help him with his homework when he has trouble understanding the assignments. “We get our ideas from the families and their needs,” Millings told me.

Regional data has demonstrated a potential need for services like Mobile Waterford all over Santa Barbara County. According to the county education office, about 67 percent of students enrolled in elementary schools in the county in 2012 were Latino. White students made up the next largest demographic, comprising about 25 percent of the county student population.

Though the percentage of white students in the county is consistent with white enrollment statewide, Latinos comprise 53 percent of all California students. While a majority of Mobile Waterford’s students come from Spanish-speaking families, Millings noted that the program has served Mongolian, Chinese, and French speakers as well.

Ed Martin, Jr., of California Concern, and psychologist Dr. John Coie, M.D., recognized this educational need in the region when they decided to start Mobile Waterford eight years ago. Martin had learned from then-superintendent Brian Sarvis of the Santa Barbara Unified School District that about 450 kids in the district were entering kindergarten each year without a proper grasp of the English language. This knowledge gap, Sarvis said, tends to stagnate student progress and lead to eventual truancy.

Soon after, Martin discovered that the SBUSD had five site licenses totaling $850,000 that had not yet been assigned to a project. But the question remained, how could a single program serve a dispersed pre-kindergarten population on the daily basis needed to develop true English proficiency? “Bringing the program to the kids is the only feasible way to do it,” Martin said. After consulting district authorities, Martin approached the local Mission Linen Supply branch to ask that they donate an old supply van to give the cause mobility. Martin and his team then decorated the van and outfitted it with the eight workstations, which run on an electric generator underneath the vehicle.

The 2015 to 2016 schedule is ambitious, to be sure. Each weekday, the van makes four stops beginning in Westside neighborhoods and ending at the Parma Children’s Center on East Montecito Street. The teaching team onboard holds 12 sessions each weekday between 8:30 a.m. and 2:50 p.m. The number of sessions designated to each stop depends on the amount of interest generated annually in each area the van serves.

Mobile Waterford now serves about 100 children per year, with an additional 300 preschool students now learning the same curriculum in their classrooms. According to Martin, the program has garnered publicity through outreach efforts such as recruitment at local churches and markets, as well as interviews with local Spanish radio stations and newspapers. Margie Yahyavi, executive director of the Education Foundation, generates tens of thousands of dollars in donations to support the ever-expanding program. She receives individual donations amounting to anywhere between $1,000 and $20,000, while foundations typically give between $10,000 and $30,000 apiece. This fundraising allows for an annual program budget of between $140,000 and $170,000.

An exam known as the ADEPT (A Developmental English Proficiency Test) test evaluates English competence across class levels from kindergarten to eighth grade. Before the implementation of Mobile Waterford, 45 percent of pre-kindergarten students failed ADEPT each year; by 2011, that fail rate had dropped by 80 percent, with only 65 total instances of failure among program participants. As Martin puts it, “the long-range benefit is immeasurable.”


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