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Meet Laila Taslimi of Untitled No. 1 School in Santa Monica

Today we’d like to introduce you to Laila Taslimi.

Laila, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
All my life, I’ve loved learning. Fortunately, my schooling experiences from nursery school onward have also been positively formative. And school, combined with being raised by world-embracing parents who didn’t clip my wings, opened a wide range of possibilities for what my story would be.

My own education was in private schools (Mirman and Westlake) and UCLA (B.A. in Theatre Arts, and years later a Masters in Education). For the past 20 years, I taught mostly in my own community of Santa Monica. But my last year of teaching was at the UCLA Lab School, where I  was inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach to open a preschool back here in Santa Monica that could meet the need for parents of diverse means. My own approach to learning has always been to seek out the original source of what I want to learn and to find the “best” context and teachers to learn from. So I went to Reggio Emilia, Italy.

The socio-political history of this approach interested me. It grew organically in this Italian town after WWII, when people banded together aspiring to create schools that would not merely turn out conformists who could be vulnerable to complicity with fascism. The teaching and learning evolved into a parallel process for teachers and children to engage in research and inquiry. Knowledge is not limited to what is in a teacher’s mind or a teaching guide, or to any single source. Teachers are every day carefully observing and learning more about the child and about what the child is learning, so as to plan further learning experiences to expand knowledge-based upon those observations and the theories coming from them. Children’s play is a rich mine!

Upon my return from Reggio Emilia in 2015 I immediately started to look for the ideal place wherein Santa Monica this new school could be. I formed a non-profit organization, and assembled our Board of Directors – my former teaching colleagues and others I trusted to share in the vision of a socio-economically diverse school that would break the existing (national) pattern of highly segregated early education settings. Our school came about to serve an unmet need by putting what we’ve learned into ‘best practice’ for our children, families, and community.

Has it been a smooth road?
I have a pet theory, well it’s not original to me, and it is – obstacles and challenges match the person being challenged. Why should every idea play out exactly as conceived? Isn’t it a person’s responsibility to first carefully plan but also then respond to the bumps in the road? Can’t we do the legwork, the fact-finding, the soul-searching, the second-guessing, the collaborating, the honing of plan or even the changing of direction that inevitably arises after the birth of the original idea? Yes, we can! I mean, that’s the fun of it!

The early challenge was to find a site because I limited my scope to a single avenue of about 75 properties, all resident homes, so I would need to go through a Conditional Use Permit application process to convert one from residential to educational use. My decision to look only here has a story of its own, one that I was later called upon to explain to our City Council in defense of our Planning Commission approval when it was appealed by neighbors worried about this change of use. Actually, it is a wonderful place for our children to come to learn for the same reasons it’s a wonderful place for those who chose to live on this quiet, tree-lined street, close walking distance to parks, a learning garden, and the Expo train that carries us into downtown Santa Monica to shop at our Wednesday farmers market. We needed time to prove ourselves a good neighbor, and since 2018 we have done that by being open and responsive if any concern did arise.

It has been a happy challenge to meet the high standards for environmental sustainability that we set for ourselves by pursuing LEED Gold and WELL Gold certifications. The financial cost has been high to install, implement, and maintain the cleanest and most energy-efficient systems (e.g., solar trellises, air and water filtration) in our small building. But we wouldn’t want to create this school if we couldn’t lead the way toward environmental justice.

The current challenge is just to become known to the parent community. As a new school open just over a year we rely on word of mouth from other parents who have enrolled or toured. Everyone who comes tells us it’s just a matter of time until our reputation grows; meantime we focus on developing close relationships with the families and children who are already part of the school.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Untitled No. 1 School story. Tell us more about your organization.
We are a nature-based, non-profit pre-K/TK/K with a year-round, full-day program (8 am-4 pm, later by arrangement). We accept children turning four and they stay for two years, then go on to enter either first grade or kindergarten.

Children spend most of their learning day outdoors – both onsite in our back garden and front arroyo, and at one of our three closest parks. We are committed to our children participating as full citizens in our community of Santa Monica and therefore enjoy regular outings (walking and public transportation) to become familiar with everything about the journey to the grocery store and farmers market. Indoor learning spaces include studios/workshops, a lab deck, and the kitchen. We have exposed the workings of the house through wire glass peek-a-boo windows to inspire inquiry. Children learn the compost cycle as they sow, harvest, prepare/cook, serve, clean up/compost their daily snacks and lunches – all prepared onsite with mostly organic, farm-fresh ingredients.

Untitled No. 1 has as its mission to serve our community by offering families and children a joyous and engaging preschool experience, replete with opportunities to learn from nature and from one another. Because children learn best in diverse settings. Untitled No. 1 admits families evenly spread across income levels and provides scholarships to achieve this balance.

One-third of our families pay the full tuition, one-third are on full-scholarship, and one-third pay on an income-based/family size sliding scale. Our diversity is unique, and we aim to model this strength.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
There’s a great network of westside preschool directors and we actually get together monthly to talk about all aspects of the field, including trends and changing demographics. I’m also part of our Santa Monica Early Childhood Task Force, an advocacy group for quality and access because there exists a persistent “achievement gap” between the children from less and more privilege.

As an “industry” it’s hard to lump together for-profit and all types of non-profit schools and come up with a single outlook. But for anyone reading this and considering if the time is right to open a new site, I would ask, “Do you know infants and toddlers?” The greatest need currently is to provide for parents who cannot take the years out of their career/work to be with their babies. Most early education centers start at age 3 or 2-1/2. Those few centers who have an infant/toddler program in addition to their preschool-age program have impossibly long waitlists. And of course, children younger than three really do deserve their own special program-setting. So whether it’s in a home or a center, I would encourage you to create a sensory-rich (include nature!), pristine, beautiful, magical space just for the 2 and under set. And let me know about it so we can refer those who call us while still pregnant!

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Image Credit:

Whitney Cox

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