Experience and vision distinguish Oak Tree Academy in El Cajon

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Roseann Rinear made a respectable career as an educator before she refined her aim. Helping children, small children, is her life’s work, alongside her right hand “man” Conni Huntley. They operate Oak Tree Academy in El Cajon, though Rinear’s reach extends globally through her published material and preschool start-up assistance overseas. Rinear and Huntley cast a wide net from their East County corner, which helped to hone in their educational philosophy and goals. Help moms, and you will not have to rescue any kids.

Roseann Rinear made a respectable career as an educator before she refined her aim. Helping children, small children, is her life’s work, alongside her right hand “man” Conni Huntley. They operate Oak Tree Academy in El Cajon, though Rinear’s reach extends globally through her published material and preschool start-up assistance overseas. Rinear and Huntley cast a wide net from their East County corner, which helped to hone in their educational philosophy and goals. Help moms, and you will not have to rescue any kids.

It began in the late 1980s when Rinear was director at Children’s World in El Cajon, around the corner from a preschool called Wonderland, run by the White family.

“They were educators, nice people,” Rinear said. “It [Wonderland] looked like a park, there were running areas and a garden. No one wanted to leave.”

Oak Tree Academy now stands on the site of what was Wonderland. It was a long, diverging, storied path to reinvention.

With a doctorate in Child Development, Rinear taught at the college level for many years. Huntley—one of her students. An innovative partnership blossomed between them, and two minds that thought alike about early childhood education were that much more empowered in turning ideas into action.

One such idea was a literacy program at the Kroc Center. Beginning with only eight attendants in 2003, the monthly program grew to 200. During this time, Huntley ran the library at the Kroc Center. They collaborated with local schools, the Natural History Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, the local symphony and senior citizens in the community, who read to children. Every child got a free book, did art projects, and a snack. Covering a variety of topics each month, the progressive program encouraged literacy, helped immigrants integrate into the community, and was a positive outlet for those wanting to volunteer. One donor gave $1 million to keep the program running, which it still is, despite the eventual departure of Huntley and Rinear in 2007.

While the literacy program at the Kroc Center was growing, Rinear’s consulting business, Preschool Source was also going strong. One day she received a call for help from a former client applying for an Early Reading First grant.

“It was a federal program, trying to research and wanting to find out if we mentored teachers and parents, worked with children in the classroom, if it would impact children’s vocabulary and they would do better in elementary school,” Rinear said.

With the grant approved, Rinear became the project director on site of two Children of the Rainbow preschools, one in City Heights, and another in urban San Diego, where she and Huntley stayed for three years.

“The word went out really fast, that we were there to help, not to judge,” Huntley said.

Rinear had to document research, write a report for the federal government, and show improvement. Not only did they prove how their work impacted the lives of children, but also they made connections in the early literacy community.

“From that I had the honor and privilege of working with probably all the experts in language in literacy for young children in the United States, and they convinced me that I had to write a book with them,” Rinear said, though she refused a few times, finally giving in after her mother told her to. “I was a nobody, and I asked, ‘What do you guys want me for, you have all the answers’ and they said ‘We give you theory, but you’re the one who puts in into practice.’”

Rinear wrote the last chapter of  “Effective Early Literacy Practice: Here’s How, Here’s Why,” published in 2005. Other educator often used her book used in her teaching courses. 

So, Rinear by the mid 2000s had been published, received and justified educational grants, started up child care facilities worldwide, and worked with organizations like Head Start to improve childhood education. Rinear, Huntley and husbands were now so close they vacationed together. Their husbands encouraged them to open their own preschool. They opened Oak Tree Academy, which operated on site at Grossmont Baptist Church. But around this time, the preschool formerly known as Wonderland on East Washington Avenue—which had been sold by the White family and lost its former glory—became available.

Rinear and Huntley invested in the property, moved in, set up, and now take care of children ages six weeks to kinder age. Oak Tree Academy looks, and feels, like the imagination of experienced early childhood educators come to life. Rinear and Huntley are anything but absentee directors, and their staff is carefully chosen. Both women can spot indifference to the importance of child development and have made former students and staff aware that it is possible to “hurt the souls of children,” said Rinear. “If they don’t care, they don’t stay.”

Without this attention to the big picture as well as the finest detail, the 62 children currently enrolled at Oak Tree Academy would not be ready for the next educational stage in their lives. “We don’t gimmick. We want to make sure that our children are moving forward, ready to go to kindergarten with all of the academic skills that they need. If they occasionally forget the number 37, they’re preschoolers! It’s important knowing that they can learn, and learning is fun,” Huntley said. “We’re firm believers in what the research says. They will never take in as much information as they do in their first five years, no matter what they study later in life.”

Of course, Rinear and Huntley, true the making-a-difference character they possess, do not plan to slow down or stop at one academy. Not even for cancer. Rinear is a recent breast cancer survivor. During radiation treatments, she tried to figure out what she had to do before she left this world. 

While evaluating St. Anne’s school in Los Angeles, Rinear said she discovered her purpose. They established the Oak Tree Family Foundation to get this purpose going.

“We have a plan. We want to open a place for young teenage moms who have no husbands, who have been on the street, who’ve had drug and alcohol issues, and house them,” Rinear said.

Teen mothers would have mentors, and receive education and vocational training. Their children would attend Oak Tree Academy and all would receive medical, dental and psychological care, find within and always belong to an Oak Tree “family.

”When Oak Tree Academy was operating at Grossmont Baptist Church, Rinear and Huntley would see “babies pushing babies up a hill,” Huntley said, so they could get their diplomas from Grossmont High School.

“It took cancer to realize it. If we get to the mothers, the kids aren’t at risk. And we put ourselves out of business,” Rinear said.

Working moms, student moms, and troubled moms, Rinear, as a mom and educated, experienced professional, continues to discover paths to improving childcare.

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