There have been a lot of changes for early education in the Long Beach Unified School District in recent years.
The transitional kindergarten schedule was expanded last year, and this year, the TK and Head Start programs were combined for a more well-rounded pre-kindergarten curriculum.
Crystal Duarte has been on the front lines of those changes, and her hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed, as she was named the 2023 LBUSD Early Childhood Education Teacher of the Year.
Duarte, 41, was surprised and thrilled that her specific field is getting recognition.
“It’s an honor,” she said. “A lot of the time we’re recognized as babysitters. It feels like we’re at the same level, and we’ve always been. We’re the first teachers building that platform, that foundation for them. Getting them excited for school and getting them ready for kindergarten. Without us, the kindergarten teachers would have to work really hard.”
Many educators consider their profession a calling, and Duarte is no different.
“I was like the Head Start children in our program,” she said. “I didn’t have a stable home. I was raised by just my mom, so me and my brother moved around a lot. But school was always my go-to place. I’ve always loved school, and I think that’s why I continue to be an educator, just because I have such a passion for school.”
LBUSD Head Start and Early Head Start provides free part-day and full-day high-quality center-based care and education for children under 5.
After receiving her degrees from Cal State Long Beach and Walden, Duarte started working for a Head Start program in Orange County and then taught at Montessori and other private preschools.
“I was gonna do elementary, but I just love learning about early childhood,” she said. “Actually, I love how much they love learning.”
Duarte has been working at LBUSD’s Webster, Edison and Roosevelt elementary schools over the last seven years, and this year, in her first year at Roosevelt, she worked with teacher Charles Castro to combine the Head Start and TK programs. Duarte said his support and good training has helped make the classroom more comprehensive.
“The children in the program really benefited a lot,” Duarte said. “They’re getting the TK, the elementary school teacher, so that’s a lot of academics that’s getting them prepped for kindergarten. And then from Head Start we’re getting the developmental areas. We’re looking at the whole development of a child and really preparing them for kindergarten so I felt like those kids did really well this year.”