Open enrollment begins today for Santa Barbara County’s first free preschool, giving children from all backgrounds the opportunity to learn their ABCs, finger paint and eat paste.

Preschool for All, a national program that operates free preschools across the country, will open a public preschool at McKinley Elementary School in Santa Barbara next week as part of a pilot program to give local children access to a preschool education regardless of their family’s level of income. Until today, enrollment in the program was restricted to students previously enrolled in one of Santa Barbara’s state preschools and to the siblings of students already enrolled at McKinley Elementary.

“We really want to make an effort to enroll a diverse group from a broad economic spectrum,” said Jennie Martinez, child development coordinator for the Santa Barbara County School District.

Martinez said the new Santa Barbara Preschool for All will accommodate 80 students, 40 of whom will come from the 17 state preschools in the district, which are only open to low-income families. She said the remainder of the spots will be open to any local children, regardless of their families’ economic status.

Martinez said school district officials predict that the program will cost $400,000 during its inaugural year. She said the school is slated to open with a $270,000 budget, and a June initiative will determine whether the school receives the additional funds it needs to continue operating.

Funding for the preschool comes from the State of California, Martinez said, with an additional $100,000 provided by First 5, a state program that provides services to children and families. Martinez said an initiative will come before voters in June 2006 that could provide funding for any agency, private or public, that would like to open a Preschool for All program.

“When [the initiative] passes in next June there will be money coming in from the state for this program,” Martinez said. “Everyone could have a Preschool For All. [Public elementary schools] could do that and private institutes could also.”

Robin Sawaske, assistant superintendent of elementary school education for the Santa Barbara County School District, said opening the Preschool for All program in Santa Barbara is crucial for the district.

“We see it as a big step toward early interventions and allowing all students to have an equal opportunity before starting kindergarten,” Sawaske said.

There will be four preschool classes with 20 students each per day, Martinez said. She said the preschool has hired two teachers and two teaching assistants, and there will be one bilingual teacher or teaching assistant in each class. The teachers’ salaries will be similar to those of entry-level kindergarten teachers because, unlike some preschools, Preschool for All requires teachers to have bachelor’s degrees, Martinez said.

Martinez said Preschool for All uses Home Instruction for Parents With Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) – a program that teaches parents how to interact with their children on an educational level by completing coloring and activity packets that are collected by the school each week. Participation is currently optional, but in future years parents will be required to complete HIPPY training, Martinez said.

“Parent advocates go into the home and teach the parents in their homes each week,” she said. “The parent is expected to spend 15 to 20 minutes per day with their child.”

Preschool for All began nearly 10 years ago and is already established in several states, including Georgia, New Jersey and New York, in addition to several counties in California, Martinez said. She said the Santa Barbara County School District wants to eventually provide enough Preschool for All programs to accommodate every preschool-aged student in the county.