Untitled No.1 School in Santa Monica
From the moment you set foot at Untitled No.1 School, there is a sense of tranquility that envelops you. All of this is intentional. As a nature-based preschool, children here learn indoors and out. From the rustic front yard to the sun-lit enclosed patio, to the exposed (but protected) inner-workings of the building, this space was designed to spark curiosity, encourage creativity, and build environmental awareness. In addition to this safe, well-designed space, students explore their Santa Monica community with trips on the Expo line to the farmer’s market, to the public library, and local parks.
Located in Santa Monica, where the words “private education” and “affordability” rarely coincide, Untitled No.1 School is a non-profit organization which strives for diversity by providing full or partial scholarships to two-thirds of families, based on income level.
Founder and teacher, Laila Taslimi answers some questions about Untitled No.1:
First off, tell me the story of why your preschool is named “Untitled No. 1”
That’s borrowed from the ‘art world’ when you see a work that is Untitled and is occasionally numbered. The spectator wonders what the artist named their work in an attempt to comprehend it better, and when there is no title the meanings are left open for interpretation. The spectator then brings to the work of art their own imagination, their story. Here I wanted to flip the role of the artist-creator so that it is those who come through Untitled – the children and their families, teachers, members of the community, now and in the future, who are the creators. Had I chosen a name, it would have taken that opportunity away from those who actually make this place. In an era of branding, I suppose we’re an un-brand!
Where did you get inspiration to create such a welcoming and beautifully designed space?
The plan from the start was to serve working families with a full-day program. Well that’s a very long time for a person (of any age) to be confined to a room, whether it be your office or any work environment, or a “classroom.” For a growing child, I think it’s stunting to be kept in a narrowly routine, monotonous environment, and this is where the talent of teachers comes into play – and you’ll note this in several of the wonderful preschools you may visit – that children thrive in flexible spaces where teachers know how to open up worlds and multiple paths, to invite many learning possibilities.
children thrive in flexible spaces where teachers know how to open up worlds and multiple pathsLaila Taslimi
Here, and again especially because of the long day away from family, we needed to replicate a home where children could use all the rooms, plus have plenty of outdoor space. If a child has no choice to be with their own family at home, then we wanted to create an acceptable substitute. Actually, we boldly wanted to make it advantageous. We do believe children are best off with other children because we believe in social learning, but then there’s also the third teacher: their environment. We imagined sort of a super-home, a place with exposed systems – peek-a-boos into the workings of the building – to invite inquiry. “Where does the toilet water come from?” “How does the electric power get to all the outlets?” “How is the water made to come out hot from the faucet on one side?” “What’s under the house?” Teachers don’t need to be the ones to ask those questions, the way the house is designed inspires children to ask questions, to exercise their natural curiosity. That’s the kind of welcome we’re going for. You used the word beautiful about our design. Thank you for the compliment. Aesthetics do matter. But I think they’re far from enough. I’d prefer my child learns with an excellent teacher in a cave than with an uninterested teacher in a beautiful environment.
Can you tell me what certifications and future certifications the preschool has, and why that is important?
We are committed to go boldly while treading lightly. We want to be a role model in our “Sustainable City of Wellbeing” – the tagline for Santa Monica. The entire design and construction remodel met even higher standards than those required by the City of Santa Monica and Cal-Green laws. Our project was the first in California to certify under the newest, more stringent rating system of the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). We were certified LEED Gold, by building with sustainable materials and systems that maintain the cleanest water and indoor air, as well by conserving water and power. We added a lunch deck and a lab deck onto the house and trellised them with solar panels that produce 40% of our power.
We want to be a role model in our “Sustainable City of Wellbeing”the tagline for Santa Monica.
The construction was only one phase of our greening though. After we moved in, we achieved CA Green Business Certification, which took into account what we’d already achieved through LEED and then looked at how we operate. For example, we use recycled content or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper products and only ecologically-sound cleaning products. We are approximately at zero waste, we recycle, and we compost.
Finally, and this is something I’m really excited about because we’re in the education pilot program for the International Well Building Institute’s WELL certification, and are certifying Gold. WELL is a recent rating system that requires the establishment and maintenance of green practices throughout our operating life. WELL is about, in a word, wellness. WELL benefits everyone in, around, and impacted by our building operations, and the seven WELL concepts are: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. Being nature-based plays right into that, because people are surrounded by natural light through our windows, and the windows look out onto green landscape. Children and adults both benefit.
These green certifications are important because they prompt us to be eco-aware. We learn to be conservationists, stewards of the environment. Children learn the compost cycle by participating in each stage of the cycle: we plant and harvest in our back yard and at the nearby park’s Learning Garden, or we shop at the Wednesday farmers market, we prepare all our lunches and snacks in our kitchen workshop, and food scraps go into our garden composter to be used later in our planting beds. We’re learning to care for our earth home.
Untitled No.1 is a wonderful addition to the community. Tell me about your reasoning for choosing this location.
When I returned from Reggio Emilia, Italy in the summer of 2015 I began to search for a site for Untitled. I was excited about the Expo line under construction – who isn’t at least a little thrilled by a train? – and there was a wonderful new park under construction close to the Bergamot Station stop. I studied the landscape architect’s plan for this park and it was really conducive to community uses that could include our children. The park includes a rock garden, a bird garden, a scaled down grassy lawn just the right size for our age, a fenced-in sand and play equipment area, a citrus orchard, and an exemplary community learning garden. The architect’s rendering showed children at a makeshift lemonade stand by the orchard and that was a sign to me that our children could help bring this park to life.
I’m a big proponent of Child Friendly Cities (childinthecity.org) which comes out of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In a child-friendly city children are active participants in their communities, seen and heard in public contributing as full citizens. As a resident of Santa Monica for most of my life (since being 4 years old myself) I’d say all my many happy experiences growing up here share one thing in common: I was free to navigate through town with a friend or even on my own from a young age of about 11. I independently walked to places and rode the bus to the mall (what much later became the Third Street Promenade) and felt very much at ease in my town. This made me the child and adult I am now, someone engaged in civic life, trying to “be the change.”
Siting Untitled by a train stop (and Big Blue Bus stops) was intentional, because I wanted our children to gain that sense that this is their town too. I initially looked for a property across the street from the park, but there were only apartment buildings and triplexes. Santa Monica is so quickly gentrifying and I could not see renters losing their homes knowing how unlikely they’d be able to resettle elsewhere in expensive Santa Monica. Instead I went around the corner and discovered this tree-canopied avenue of original single story homes, and knew this was the perfect place.
I started canvassing door-to-door along the three blocks of Delaware Avenue (about 75 houses), first introducing myself and my intention to find a place to convert to an early education center. I took fliers in English and Spanish, and brought along a former 2nd grade student of mine from when I taught at McKinley Elementary School. She was home from college and came along to translate to Spanish in the event a homeowner answered their door and was not able to understand me. It was on that first walk in December 2015 that I learned about the Japanese American enclave here. There were a few Spanish speaking families too, but as a longtime teacher and resident in Santa Monica I was unsettled by my ignorance of the history and heritage of these internment camp survivors residing right here in our town. Why wasn’t this included in what we were teaching in our schools so that all (teachers and) Santa Monica children would learn from these cultural assets? I determined to embark on an oral history project to capture the stories on video or audio. After a couple of unsuccessful bids on houses that came up for sale in 2016, and going door-to-door again this time directly asking if anyone knew of someone planning to sell their home, this property came on the market in January 2017. The approval process took till January 2018, and we completed the remodel and got licensed just in time to start this last September.
As a non-profit, briefly explain the scholarship process.
It’s our mission to serve families evenly spread across income levels. So just one-third of the families pay full tuition. One-third are here on full scholarship, and one-third on a partial scholarship with their tuition amount calculated as a percentage of their income (on a sliding scale). Scholarships are funded by our non-profit organization. Should a family qualify for a subsidy through Connections for Children that requires they reimburse Connections for Children for part of it, we make up that difference so in fact they attend here for free. The income thresholds to qualify for scholarships are quite generous, because Santa Monica is an expensive place to live.
As a community school, we prioritize admission to 90404 residents, and this is because we want our community’s children to benefit.Laila Taslimi
As a community school, we prioritize admission to 90404 residents, and this is because we want our community’s children to benefit. We seek socio-economic diversity not only because it is socially just, but also because children learn best in diverse settings. Preschool is the right time and place to mix with people you may not cross paths with in meaningful ways or establish relationships with otherwise. I think about how this matters to a person’s outlook and decision-making and problem-solving capacities as they grow up too.
How are children well-prepared to enter traditional school settings after completing this program?
Across our two-year program at Untitled No. 1 we work to prepare our children to excel in either Kindergarten or First Grade, at public or private school. I am familiar with both traditional and progressive approach schools. As an 18-year veteran elementary teacher myself I can share with confidence what learning characteristics or dispositions are valuable to develop as preparation for learning in school and beyond.
I remember at elementary school Back to School Nights parents would approach me to ask what we needed them to bring (à la wish-list items) and I’d reply that all we wish for is for children to arrive to school happy. Of course, that is a tall order, so I wasn’t being flippant. But the essence of that is, a child preoccupied with stress has an uphill battle to learn. The first years of life are well spent becoming a conscious human, aware of self and others, able to calculate risks and find fulfillment when taking on challenges and solving problems both independently and in collaboration with others, accustomed to some ‘hardship’, exerting effort and showing perseverance due to a healthy “growth mindset”, and excited (yes happy) to face each day. Parents are likely familiar with these terms: self-confidence, resilience, grit, critical thinking skills, 21st century skills. They are woven into those learning dispositions just articulated.
The development of those learning dispositions frame all the teaching and learning here. We craft individualized learning goals for each child, drawing from the developmental domains (e.g., Social Emotional, Language and Literacy, Mathematics, Science, Arts, etc.) of the California Preschool Learning Foundations for 48-month and 60-month age expectations. We consult with parents on their child’s learning goals, and we communicate regularly on what we observe as progress.
It’s very exciting to be in on the start of a new site, to “invent” or create what we believe to be ideal, to avoid pitfalls learned from others, to encounter unexpected obstacles and try to figure out what and who can help us through, to enjoy one another’s contributions, to laugh and to learn to do better every day. This is really parallel to what our children experience here – learning is learning!
Untitled No.1 School
Applications for Fall 2019 now available!
2953 Delaware Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Visit their website and social media channels for more information:
This is a sponsored post, paid for by Untitled No.1 School. Westside Mommy toured the school and willfully endorses this establishment.