When Second Chance Community School relocated last year and was renamed SOUL Academy, it became an important piece of a facility that already includes the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Diego — Encanto Branch, Heartbeat Music & Performing Arts Academy, a coding school, and a host of other offerings.
The San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) SOUL Academy program exemplifies the community school concept in which conditions are created for students to thrive by establishing partnerships with community stakeholders and the whole child is cared for. (SOUL stands for strength, opportunity, unity, and liberation.)
“It’s difficult to address the needs of the student without addressing the needs of the student’s family and the entire community,” said Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) Executive Director Tracy Thompson. “If a student is coming to school hungry, or is homeless, scared, or traumatized — if you don’t address those things, it will hinder academic growth.”
On Sept. 21, the SOUL Academy complex opened the only licensed infant/toddler child care center in the community, a collaborative effort with SDCOE’s Early Education Programs and Services department. It will join the existing preschool and before- and after-school program at the Heartbeat Academy.
The state-funded center will serve community families, parenting teens, and children with special needs through the HOPE Infant Family Support program, all of whom must meet eligibility requirements based on income and need. The center can accept up to 28 infants and toddlers from birth to 3 years old.
The addition of a state-funded infant/toddler child care center is an incredible benefit to the community, says Lucia Garay, executive director of Early Education Programs and Services.
“The adult-to-child attention and ratio and qualifications of staff is higher with a state-funded program so we’re able to bring into this community a different quality of early learning environment for the babies,” Garay said. “Who they interact with and the environment is so important to these kids having the foundational brain architecture and being in a stable environment for their child care that is higher quality. As they move on, we know from research that that will make an impact.”
Establishing the infant/toddler center at SOUL Academy has also been a collective effort among multiple SDCOE departments, including JCCS, Maintenance and Operations, Business Services, and Human Resource Services. The JCCS Food Services team was instrumental in setting up the California Adult and Child Food Program, the program for younger students that mirrors the program for school-age children. They also helped Heartbeat Academy establish a service contract so that the children will be served the same meals through the same vendor at the same time.
Garay says this shows families that the children are being cared for equitably at the center, adding that families may have kids at different grade levels that will have the same experience and access to the same benefits. Working together has been helpful to both organizations and to the community. Garay says that her team has a better understanding of the needs of the community through working so closely with Heartbeat Academy and the building landlord, and has built a strong partnership with the JCCS team working on staff selection and registration for the center, among other things.