Even Start gives toddlers, parents a leg up 

When Gina Castaneda came to the United States from Mexico a few years ago, she was so ashamed of her language skills that she wouldn’t leave her house, afraid that someone would talk to her and find out she couldn’t understand them.

All that changed after she signed herself and her children up with Even Start, a preschool and literacy program at John Gill School for low-income residents.

"In our country, it’s very different — children go to school, and that’s it; parents are not part of it," Castaneda said during an open house at Even Start on Thursday. Now, "I and my kids are not afraid to go places and talk to people. My kids are proud of their mom."

Founded in 1999, Even Start serves 36 families, including 76 children, in its "Escuelita," or little school — for infants and toddlers — and its classroom for older pre-kindergarten students, Director Gloria Nudelman said. While the school prepares children ages 0 to 7 for kindergarten, it enrolls their parents in English-language programs through Cañada College and teaches them how to teach their children to read.

The program ran on federal grants through 2006, but those funds dried up. Since then, it has survived on private donations, Nudelman said.

Children who attend Even Start’s classes are fully prepared when they enter kindergarten, while one-third of the parents who participate in the adjunct English as a Second Language program have moved up in the job world, Nudelman said.

One parent, Lizbeth Mendoza, came to the U.S. in 2001 with no grasp of English. This fall, she is transferring to Cal Poly San Louis Obispo to earn a degree in civil engineering. She also coaches volleyball and tutors younger ESL students.

"Learning the language is not enough — I wanted to have a career," Mendoza said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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Beth Winegarner

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