Santa Barbara County Education Office - ZACA Center

ZACA's Introduction

Hi, I’m Florene Bednersh with the Santa Barbara County Education Office. I’m Assistant Superintendent and I over see all of our special education programs.

Back in the late 80’s, early 90’s, we were doing a lot of inclusion of our preschool classrooms. Moving our kids off of public elementary schools where there weren’t really any age appropriate peers, into state preschools, head starts, and private preschools. In '96 we were working in the Santa Ynez Valley, trying to move in that direction. We were having a really hard time finding a place to put our kids. Most of the schools there were religiously affiliated and there was quite a bit of religion engrained in the program and that wasn’t what we wanted to do. We found this program called ZACA Center. It was a privately owned preschool. We went and met with the director and talked about including some of our kids in her program.

When we started talking money, she wanted some exorbitant amount of money and I said, hey, we are a school district, we don’t have a lot of money, we are willing to work with you and you get a lot of bonuses--Our usual pitch. She said, “Well I’m going bankrupt right now so why don’t you just buy if from me.” I laughed at her and we departed our ways. I went home that night and I thought, I wonder if we could buy it?

So, I went back to my superintendent the next day, and he said, “Write a business plan and let’s talk about it.” I did some research, learned how to write a business plan, worked with my fiscal people, and we wrote the plan. I contacted the state department and I said, can a county office run a private enterprise? They said, “Well if it’s kept totally separate from special ed” (because we wanted to include our special ed kids) “you would have to keep those monies separate,” but they didn’t see a problem with it. So we made the pitch and we did it!

That was back in '96, we bought the ZACA School, we basically bought all the equipment, my superintendent gave us a loan, we took over the program and we hired the staff. I had to learn all about licensing, how to get us licensed and how to hire people with the right kind of preschool units. I had to hire a director for the preschool and we hired a wonderful woman named Shelley Grand, who is with us to this day. The preschool, as I said, was going bankrupt. Today it’s a thriving preschool, we have a waiting list, we’ve been recognized and we are part of the SEEDS demonstration site for the preschool.

Shelley Grand: Director
When the preschool was first purchased, we only had nine preschoolers enrolled. Today we have 60 preschoolers enrolled. My job was actually to fill the preschool with preschoolers and get it up and running. My goal was just to make budget. We couldn’t cross over budgets, we couldn’t use special needs funds to pay for regular ed students, so that was my job—to get that portion of the preschool built up. Nine preschoolers were not going to do that. I spent a lot of time with open houses, advertising and just reworking the center and the program to get it up and running. Today with the 60 preschoolers, it’s been very successful.

The ZACA Center believes that learning is an ongoing process. We allow the children their own space and time to grow in their own way. We do encourage a lot of tactile experiences, especially a lot of social experiences, language groups. We spend a lot of time on that and their social interaction within each other in groups as well as individual interactions and teacher-child interactions.

Sheila Ammons: Educator
There are six general education teachers on staff in three different classrooms. Teachers work in teams so I’m able to work with each of the three teams of teachers. The collaboration piece is huge. We work together and I love that most of my students don’t think of me as their teacher. That’s great, that means I’m doing my job. They think of the general ed teacher as their teacher and I’m just someone who appears sometimes to help give them a little extra help and support. Collaborating is the most important part of what we do.

Transition to ZACA

Leana Watson: Parent
I had a one-year-old son at the time and he had a tremendous amount of medical problems. He had two open-heart surgeries and spent, essentially, his first year in intensive care. He emerged with a tracheotomy, on a ventilator, a feeding tube, oxygen, pace maker, and a nurse in our home 24 hours a day. We had an early start interventionist come to our home. We had already been doing a lot of physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy.

She came to our home, because he was trached, we really did not want him to be around a lot of other children for airway issues and illness. As he started getting better, she said, why don’t you bring him to ZACA and be able to socialize with other children.

Alec’s experiences with ZACA were amazing. He came in, because he was trached for two years, he could not speak for those years. We did a lot of sign language with him, but he essentially, did not start speaking until after two.

When we were looking for preschools, we looked at many different preschools and were looking for a preschool that could provide him a really rich social environment because he needed to see his peers modeling correct speech behavior and socialization cues and skills. He needed the structure and the high teacher-student ratio. He needed all of those things as well as just a fabulous physical environment, a school that was beautiful and provided a great play structure.

I remember when we first brought Alec he had some major separation anxiety. Because he was trached we were suctioning him constantly and he would be very gaggy and he would vomit. He was vomiting at home probably 20-40 times a day, literally, for two years. It is just part of the gagging-trach thing. He had learned how to, when he got really upset, how to make himself vomit and how to make himself do other things like that to get our attention. So, when he was having some significant separation anxiety, he would be crying to the point that he would vomit. We worked it to where I was actually in the classroom for quite a while and kind of weaned myself out of it over the course of like six months. The staff was so great, they wanted to do what worked well for Alec and if that meant that I sat in a corner for a little while and then left, that was fine. If it meant that they figured out a way to help engage him in an activity so that he could deal with it for a little while until I returned, they were great with that.

Integrated Therapy and Infusing Goals

Leana Watson: Parent
When Alec had therapy at ZACA we did a couple of things. One is a therapist would come in and work with a group of children, with him and maybe three or four other children and work on a fine motor skill. She would grab a few kids, including Alec, and work on a lacing project or a cutting project so none of the other children really knew that anyone was having therapy. They just thought this teacher was coming in and doing this cool project with them and it would just be that Alec was always in the group, but that was so over the children’s head. They didn’t notice that at all. Alec never felt isolated, he never felt that he was pulled away from an activity that all of his friends were doing. The other children didn’t even notice it.

The other thing, is that we would sometimes meet right before I would drop him off at school and have a therapy right before or a therapy right after but most of his therapy was done within the classroom setting but without him being isolated. When we had the APE instructor come and do physical therapy and adaptive PE, she would grab a few of the kids and come out and do a kicking relay thing with a few of the children. So, it was a way where Alec got therapy in an integrated program where the other children that didn’t have special needs also got great therapy. They got great practice doing fine motor things and great practice with gross motor things. The speech was especially great and really needed and benefited from children that did not have special needs because the child with special needs got to see how the other children responded correctly and modeled correct speech pronunciation and speech response and interaction with each other. So, that child with special needs was in a group of four, five, or six peers, three of whom did not have special needs and was able to see that interaction.

My child got therapy in a way that he didn’t even really know that he was having therapy. With a child like mine who had a lot of special needs and a lot of therapy, he was done with therapy, so it had to be presented in a way that was fun. But, also, I didn’t want him isolated and I didn’t want him to be the kid who was pulled out, and I didn’t want him to be the child, with peers but also and more importantly, in his own eyes, I did not want him to feel like he was different or less or not as good in any of these areas and ZACA did a fabulous job of constantly integrating the therapy.

Sheila Ammons: Educator
Because we do full inclusion that means that there is not a separate class for the students that I work with. They are with the rest of the group of the students, really, the whole time they are here. Instead of them coming to me, I go and find them wherever they are at, look at what they are doing, and give them some strategies and tools to participate in that activity.

Leana Watson: Parent
The teachers did all of their art projects utilizing fine motor stuff with cutting, lacing, and gluing, even pulling off stickers which is such a fine motor activity that we don’t even think about. Not only was my child getting therapy with the actual professional therapist, he was getting therapy and all of the things that every child needs in preschool. Three hours of preschool were really three hours of social therapy, physical therapy, fine-motor therapy, speech therapy, peer modeling, and it was a tremendous asset for my child, for both of my children.

Sheila Ammons: Educator
Because there’s a lot of teachers, it is a challenge to make time to work with each of the teachers and keep them updated of what is currently happening, what different strategies we are trying, how to change what we are already doing. Just to give that daily feedback to each of the teachers and the instructional assistants, it’s challenging to make contact with the wide variety of people.

At this point we have a pretty slick system so that I’m able to say, pretty briefly, what I need to, in terms of provide more support, or provide less support. We always work towards independence so one of the issues is providing too much support. Then the kids aren’t able to do as many of the skills as they need to by themselves. We have a written form so that if I think of feedback to give, I can write it and leave it in the teachers' mailboxes. For the goals specifically in the IEP, they are targeted all of the time that the kids are here. What’s nice about ZACA Center is that the general ed teachers know first hand what the goals for each of the students are so that they are able to, during lesson plan time, target those skills and give all of the class practice with those goals. I’m able to collect data both through observation and through what the general ed teachers tell me the students did during specific activities.


Leana Watson: Parent
The strength of ZACA, which is the total integration, really serves two purposes in my mind. It’s such a huge asset for the children who have special needs because they see proper peer modeling, they see speech behavior, patterning, social interaction, and drawing skills. It’s a huge and tremendous asset for the children that don’t have special needs, like my daughter, who is here now, because they are able to have a sense of compassion and a sense of inclusion that starts so early.

It’s amazing because there are so many of the children who don’t even realize that they are in a classroom with children who have special needs. It’s kind of like Sarah has blonde hair, Megan has brown hair, Alec takes a little bit longer to speak and I don’t do that. It’s just like another difference that is a very commonplace difference that they don’t even really notice. Their ability to help each other has been amazing and it’s been one of the things that we love the most about ZACA, because it really has given my child a place where he not only felt accepted, but was accepted.

McClain is my daughter, she is the youngest and she is four and a half. She has been here at ZACA from the time she was old enough to go to preschool. She does not have special needs. She is very outspoken, very social, and really is a child who has benefited from preschool in general, but has especially benefited from the situation here at ZACA.

I, of course, knew it was a fabulous preschool for children with special needs, but it is amazing to realize that of the children at ZACA, only 15% have special needs and the other 85% are getting this amazing education and amazing experiences, but they are also getting a great lesson, everyday, in compassion, in socializing with children who have different needs than they do, and different experiences than they do and they do it in such a way that is seamless.

Shelley Grand: Director
All of the preschool teachers are responsible for their goals, they know ahead of time, and they meet with the special day class teacher ahead of time. We spend a great deal of time collaborating with each other. All of the teachers know what the goals are, they work with the children on those goals, they collaborate with the parents to work on things at home, and they attend all the IEP meetings so they are always aware of what’s going on. They are fully responsible for that. It’s not just left up to the special day class teacher. It’s just a collaborative effort. Everyone works with all of the students, you won’t ever see that, “oh these are your students, and oh these are mine.” It’s just one big effort.

Sheila Ammons: Educator
The overall reason is that research tells us that kids learn best from each other. That means I can sit and work with a child and be working on a concept and they may not be that interested in what I have to say, but if they can see it in action with the other kids, that’s way more interesting than just working with an adult. So, research really tells us that kids are able to learn better from each other with some adult support.

It’s a pretty unique setting, and the benefits are really tremendous. The children without special needs learn so much about tolerance, diversity, and acceptance. Those are lessons that they will have with them as they grow up. Those are really important skills.


Leana Watson: Parent
As a parent, one of the concerns you have in sending your child off into this big bad world of school where they are not under your supervision, is you worry about their safety, their physical safety as well as their emotional safety. Are they going to be treated well? Are their needs going to be met? And then you worry about other scarier things like are they going to be abused and not be taken care of correctly? The way that ZACA is set up with such a wide open and integration of the classes, it dissolves all those fears because there is never one child and one teacher alone. There are always several teachers. There is never an opportunity for a child and a teacher to be placed in a situation that is not safe. There are always so many eyes watching the children on the playground, and so many eyes taking care of a skirmish between two children here or a behavior that’s unsafe over here.

That’s one of the reasons that we always felt safe sending our child, even our child with tremendous medical needs that were physical medical needs. We knew that he would be well taken care of physically, but more importantly that his self worth, and his impression of himself would be carefully taken care of here, that he would be treated well and that he would be given every opportunity as every other child. Which is what you want when you are the parent of a child with special needs, you want them to have everything that every other child has.

We feel so blessed that we’ve been able to be here and be able to have a foundation laid for our children, for both of them, that is one where they love education, where they know that teachers love them, and take care of them and where they are able to learn and interact with other children of varying needs and been able to really grow and be able to play off their strengths and been able to get help in the areas where they need it. We feel so blessed that we’ve been at ZACA and I am very grateful.

Parent Involvement

Leana Watson: Parent
I’m kind of one of those parents that was kind of a high-strung parent. I don’t want to say high-strung parent, but a parent that was very involved and I wanted to know what was going on today, what happened today. The staff here, especially Shelley Grand, the director, was in constant communication with me and really we were able to work out programs and things where they were reinforcing what we were doing at home.

They gave us so many ideas and ways that we could maximize his growth. They were honest with us and helped us understand what his strengths and weaknesses were and things that we could do and things that they could do here. I’m constantly doing research and they were open to ideas and thoughts I had and we would frequently have little pow-wows where we would sit and try to hash out things that we could do to try to improve a situation or to help him improve something that we were working on in his IEP.

Sheila Ammons: Educator
I’m lucky that most of the families are able to bring their children to school every day so I’m able to have a brief interaction with the families most days. I can ask about what’s been going on at home. I can give ideas and suggestions for things that are challenging at home. All of the students have issues that are creating challenges in their home environment so I’m able to help coach parents through that process and help problem solve with them.

10474 Mather Boulevard | P.O. Box 269003 | Sacramento, CA 95826 | 916-228-2388 |
Under the direction of and funded by the California Department of Education, Special Education Division
SEEDS Legacy Resource