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Growing Place Celebrates 20th Anniversary: an idea that grew into a school

The Growing Place celebrated its 20th anniversary Saturday at a picnic attended by more than 300 current and alumni family members. Former teachers and board members showed up, too, to marvel at the first graduates, now successful twenty-somethings attending college and starting careers.

The Growing Place philosophy – that very young children are capable of engaging fully with ideas and the world around them – and its dedication to excellence in early learning, have made it one of Santa Monica’s most sought-after early education programs.

In 1983, in the belief that Santa Monica was in dire need of year round, all-day quality childcare programs, Ellen Khokha convinced a group of working mothers to organize as the founding board of a non-profit center, and began the arduous processes of licensing and fundraising.

The Growing Place opened its doors in 1985 and today its Ocean Park campus welcomes 78 children every morning. In 2000, it took over operation of the Marine Park childcare facility, serving 53 infants and toddlers, with priority given to Santa Monica residents and city employees. Altogether, over two decades, The Growing Place has taught nearly 2,500 preschoolers and provided, staff estimates, 68,750 hours of childcare. It also prepares future teachers through a mentoring program for students from Santa Monica High School and the child development program at Santa Monica College.

“The Growing Place is unique in a big city like Los Angeles,” noted Khokha, the executive director, “because we are able to create community for families trying to raise young children. We’re not related, but we share values towards education and care about the same things: each other.”

“It’s such a gift to work with these parents, teachers and kids,” she added. “Every one of them has taught us something and continues to teach us. Every child brings a new point of view, and that’s what makes the job so rewarding.”

Parent commitment, Khokha says, is “phenomenal,” citing as an example a parent meeting “10 or 12 years ago, where the debate was over whether to replace worn equipment in the yard or purchase computers for the head teachers. There wasn’t money for both.

“Charles Ying, whose child was enrolled back then, stormed out of the meeting. But he came back — with two computers he had put together himself. This completely changed our ability to document the children’s work. Charles continues to support the teachers with new technology long after his own child has left. This is what we mean by community. Helping not only our own children but everyone’s child.”

The teachers are equally enthusiastic. After nine years in the classroom, this is Madeleine Maxwell’s last Growing Place season. She’s moving to Texas to be near her family. What makes the place special, she says, is “the recognition that children are so capable and have such wonderful ideas. They teach us all the time.”

The kids have their own ideas.

Morgan Jarow, age 3, likes the “slides and poles and playing baseball in the lower yard” – and “learning about crickets.” His friend Nathan likes baseball, too.

Five-year-old Adya Mohanty is a two-year Growing Place veteran and will start kindergarten in the fall. “I’ll miss my teachers and friends,” she admits, “and the monkey bars.” But she’ll take with her the lessons she learned: “to respect friends, and be kind and fair.”

Kim Hamer, a mother of three, picked The Growing Place “because of its learning philosophy. We moved into a house in March and [my three-year-old] Ezra wanted to share it with his friends, so he started a model. He cut out trees and leaves, and even made a three-dimensional basketball hoop, out of wire. He worked on it for two months. No other school would let him continue to work on one project for that long. They’d just say, ‘okay, you’re done now.’ [The model] is one of my most cherished things.”

If the alumni on hand for the picnic are any indication, kids don’t outgrow The Growing Place. Kim Foley spent three years in the program. She’s 19 now and just finished her first year at the University of Chicago. In the interim, she worked at the Ocean Park center as a classroom aide and volunteered in the office.

Foley is pleased with how her old school has evolved, though she says a bit wistfully, “It was different then. I remember the talking chairs, and sleeping on the cots. And I’m still good friends with one former classmate.”

“Talking chairs” are not enchanted furniture on loan from Hogwarts. They are used as a neutral forum where the preschoolers can talk out and resolve their disagreements.]

Michael Sakamoto, 20, and his sister Tricia, 17, are both Growing Place alumni. Michael is a student at UC Irvine with fond memories of “the Dino Fair and having fun with friends.” Tricia, who attends Santa Monica High School, recalls “water days. When it got hot in the summer, they’d bring out tubs and hoses and we’d all get wet.”

The day’s menu reflected the diversity of The Growing Place student body. Parents arrived with containers of taquitos, sushi, pasta, empanadas, curry, and vitel toné, an Argentinean casserole made with tuna and vegetables. For those with less adventurous palates, there was pizza or macaroni and cheese.

A collection of Growing Place T-shirts hung along the fence, part of an exhibit assembled by Paula Lowe, director at the Marine Park site. Their slogans reminded guests of the Growing Place principles: “many faces, one world” and “difference is delightful.”

Michelle Lawson is a veteran of the Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach and Inglewood school districts, and has taught at The Growing Place for 8 1/2 years — “longer than at any other site.” What keeps her here?“The name of the school says it all,” Lawson explains. “There’s a lot of growing. I enjoy giving to children and learning from there. Here, it happens.”

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