Partners Create Child Care and Performing Arts Complex — Ojai, California

Last Updated: April 01, 2006

This article appeared in the April 2006 Rural Policy Matters.


Community organizations and the schools in Ojai, California have a long history of friendly relations. They regularly share information about families who need assistance, collaborate on special projects involving children and teens, and make space available to one another for meetings and projects. Two collaborations are featured here: the Smart Start program, which offers preschool and before and after school programs, and the development of a performing arts complex shared by Nordhoff High School and the Ojai Performing Arts Theater Academy.


Ojai, California is located in a valley surrounded by mountains in Ventura County. Ventura, the closest town and county seat, is approximately 20 miles from Ojai. Many residents must make long drives to work on narrow and winding roads that are susceptible to landslides and flooding.

The community's economy is based on agriculture and, increasingly, tourism. Property values are rising rapidly, squeezing out young families unable to afford the housing costs, while enrollment in the district is declining. The Ojai Unified School district serves some 3,600 students, about 69% of whom are white and 26% are Latino. Fourteen percent of students are English Language Learners and 29% are eligible for free or reduced school lunches.


Smart Start preschoolers are excited about "graduating" into kindergarten!  Photo courtesy of Smart Start Child Development Center.

Smart Start

As a teacher in the Ojai Unified School District, Dana Huffman recognized that many working parents wanted-and needed-high quality childcare. In 1992, Huffman formed the non-profit organization Smart Start and approached the school district and the city of Ojai about collaborating to provide preschool programs. There was interest and the three entities formed a Joint Powers Agency to get the effort started.

Together the groups were able to launch the first Smart Start Center in 1994. The school district provided the land for the building, the city provided the site preparation for the building, and Smart Start provided the building, staff, and childcare expertise. As part of the collaboration, the site preparation provided by the city was considered a loan, which Smart Start "repaid" by providing scholarships for children whose families could not afford the fees.

Since that time Smart Start has expanded to provide after school and summer programs for school-age children at three elementary schools in the district. The facilities are used for part-day state-funded preschool during the mornings while older students are in the classroom. Smart Start also offers free or low-cost full-day childcare programs at two other sites--the elementary school and the school district's administrative offices. And, it offers before school care at one elementary school.

In addition, Smart Start offers English Language Civics, a federally funded English Language instruction program for adults. It collaborates with a local computer-training business that allows Smart Start to use its computers in exchange for occasional use of the center for private instruction. Smart Start also makes its facilities available for off-campus classes in Child Development offered through Ventura Community College. This arrangement provides continuing education units for Smart Start staff and helps local residents who are interested in obtaining childcare certification but are unable to make the 45-minute commute to the college campus.

Smart Start's preschool programs offer high quality early childhood education and English Language instruction. About 70% of students who participate do not speak English when they begin the program and most are English-proficient by the time they start kindergarten.

Smart Start's after school and summer programs focus on enrichment activities that complement the schools' curriculum. They also offer homework help for students who are interested.

Ojai’s Trolley helps Smart Start preschoolers take fun field trips. Photo courtesy of Smart Start Child Development Center.

Smart Start supports its programs through a variety of funding streams. The school-age programs are tuition-based. The three state-funded half-day preschool programs are free to income-eligible families. The full-day childcare programs, also state-funded, are free or low-cost, based on the family's income. A no-interest state loan through the state has enabled Smart Start to replace inadequate leased buildings.

Smart Start seeks private and public grants, is actively supported by local civic organizations, and is starting a local donors club. And, it participates in community activities and nonprofit fundraisers by providing fun and educational activities for kids--which also raises its profile in the community.

Smart Start's programs are fully licensed by the state of California and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. In compliance with California regulations for funded childcare programs, Smart Start teachers maintain an individual portfolio on each child that includes a record of progress in a number of developmental areas as well as samples and photos of student work. Huffman explains, "We're able to provide the staffing ratios that enable teachers to work one-on-one with the kids, so we can really follow how well they're doing and where we need to adjust our curriculum."

Smart Start has been very successful and well-supported in the community Huffman observes, "because it meets a real need of families across the district and offers a high-quality program. The preschools help prepare kids to be successful in school, and that's good for everyone."

Performing Arts Complex

The Ojai Performing Arts Theater Academy was born of a desire to develop arts programs that reached further into the community than the school could. The Academy provides programs in dance, drama, and music for community residents ages five and up and began in the summer of 2005. Bill Wagner, Director of Music at Nordhoff High School, explains that the program supplements the schools' curricula and helps build support and audiences for the performing arts. It also enables local artists who do not have teaching licenses to work directly with students.

Nordhoff High long needed a theater, but it lacked the money to build one. Its successful arts programs, which led in part to interest in creating the Theater Academy, did not have a good place to perform. Now that the Theater Academy is thriving, there is additional need for a performing arts complex in Ojai. This need spurred the development of the Ojai Theater Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose current priority is getting a facility built.

The close collaboration of the school district with the Performing Arts Theater Academy in the development of programs led naturally to an interest in collaborating on the facility. Wagner was active in establishing the Theater Academy, and the district's superintendent, Dr. Tim Baird, is on the Board of the Ojai Theater Foundation.

The collaborators formed a contractual partnership to build the facility. The school district is providing the land; the Foundation is raising the money. The school district will provide utilities and maintenance; the Foundation will provide technical and theater management. The Foundation has a low interest loan pending with the USDA to cover much of the cost of the facility, which will include a black box theater, an amphitheater, and classroom space.

In the meantime, the school district has expanded its own performing arts program. In one of the district's elementary schools, all the sixth graders-and their teachers-take violin lessons. The violins were made possible through a private donation and grants. Students continue in the program through middle school and those who want to continue in high school will be able to keep their instruments until they graduate. The first group of students to participate in the program is now in the seventh grade. "It's been a great program because all the kids in the grade are in it. It's not just kids whose families are able to provide them with lessons. And, it's made playing the violin a fun and interesting part of these kids' lives-it's not just for a few kids on their own."  

Lessons Learned

  • Don't assume doors are closed. You have to ask.
  • Clearly lay out your goals and what your program is. Do your homework so that you can present the need and the process. Also tell a story that helps people understand what the program will be and captures their imagination and commitment.People want to help, and they need to know how.
  • Learn what your resources are.
  • Don't burn bridges. You need everyone, and the person who seems to be a problem could turn out to be your biggest supporter.
  • Nobody can do this kind of work by themselves; it takes a lot of partners.
  • Always look for what the need is and what you can do to help.
  • Youth development is predicated on what kids are involved in; with healthy youth preparation and a healthy education system, the entire community is affected in positive ways.
  • Often kids don't know what they want to do. They need lots of opportunities to explore and be exposed in order to figure it out.
  • Don't give up; it's never easy, but it's worth it.

Contact Information

Dana Huffman
Incorporator, Board President, Smart Start
P. O. Box 1208, Ojai CA 93024
(805) 646-1711

Janice McCormick
Ojai Unified School District
(805) 640-4300 x1045

Nordhoff High School
1401 Maricopa Hwy
Ojai, CA  93023
(805) 640-4343

School District Demographic Information

District Enrollment: 3,600
Grades Served: K-12
Percent of Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunches: 29%
Percent of Students who are English Language Learners: 14%
Percent of Student Population:
     American Indian/Alaskan Native:  1%
     Asian/Pacific Islander:  2%
     Black, not Hispanic:  1%
     Hispanic:  26%
     White, not Hispanic:  69%

Read more from the April 2006 Rural Policy Matters.

Related Categories: Rural Policy Matters

Related Tags: School-Community Partnerships