Malibu’s longest running preschool sees uncertain future

Shari Latta, founder of Children's Creative Workshop, is looking for a new site with the school's departure from Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. Photo by Julie Ellerton/TMT.

Children’s Creative Workshop is one of Malibu’s longest running, nonprofit private preschools located on the Point Dume Marine Science Campus. Started in 1982, the organization is based on academics in art and learning in a dynamic and creative environment. The curriculum is built on science and provides a fun and creative path to many topics, including marine life, local wildlife, ecology, Chumash local history, geology, and more.

The preschool currently enrolls children 2 years and 3 months old to 5 years old.

Parent Alexis Swain currently has her 3-year-old attending the preschool and said she has recently found out the school may have to close its doors at the end of this school year.  

“Aside from being a nonprofit, it is one of the longest running and highly regarded preschools in Malibu, with a 40-plus-year legacy and deep roots in the community,” Swain said. “It was founded by long-time Malibu resident and lifeguard Shari Latta. Having grown up in Malibu myself, I appreciate that the curriculum incorporates the local history, ecology, and culture.”

Swain said Latta has been desperately trying to find a new location for over a year as the current campus at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School will be lost to construction this summer. 

“Sadly, each prospective avenue has proved unsuccessful,” Swain said. “Shari has always leased from the SMMUSD, and after 40 years is getting left without a lease. The parents and alumni have stepped in and are trying to find CCW a new home to continue its legacy. We feel it would be a true tragedy to the community for CCW to have to close its doors. We are trying to generate community support.”

Swain said they have gathered numerous letters from alumni and parents, both current and waitlisted, and have posted on social media in hopes of reaching the Malibu community at large. 

“Losing the services of Shari and CCW would be like losing a piece of Malibu itself,” Swain said.

Cassidy Benadum, a fellow CCW parent, and one of the spearheaders of the save-CCW movement, has been working alongside the other parents to find a new location for their beloved school. 

“The program director, Shari, has been tirelessly searching for close to two years now, while running a full-time preschool,” Benadum said. “Shari has built something truly irreplaceable. 40 years of supporting and nurturing countless Malibu kids and families. We, as current CCW parents, decided that it’s time we support her and work together to find a new home for this Malibu legacy, for our children and generations to come.”

Latta, the founder and director of CCW and junior lifeguard, has been involved with teaching since she was 7 years old. 

“My mom was a teacher, so I was always in school, I was there late and I’d always find the littlest kids and hang out and play with them,” Latta said. “My mom offered me a job when she was running a summer camp to be the assistant in the preschool when I was 11 years old. It was somewhere in the ’70s. So I actually had a job. I remember I worked in the preschool. I loved kids. I just love them. So I realized that was my calling.”

Latta soon studied teaching and received her credential to be a teacher and a director. 

“We [CCW] started in 1982,” she said. “I had an alternate location for a couple months and then right in 1983, we moved into the Malibu community center, so I ran the Children’s Creative Workshop preschool from 1983 and all the way up until 2018. Then the school made this switch with no plan to build this into the new site.”

Latta said the school told them they could stay there until the demolition happened and when she asked when they could return, the school claimed that they have no extra space for CCW. 

“I feel like if they wanted to, they could make space for us and the principal was hoping we could come back,” Latta said. “He had me write a letter, talking about all the various great points of us coming there.”

Latta stressed the importance of supporting small businesses and now she is unable to keep her business going. 

“I’m a small businesswoman, and now I’m forced out of service,” Latta said. “I have looked at all the other options and licensing, facilities, and a preschool facility is very specific and it would be completely cost prohibitive, so what we need is our old spot back that has been licensed or a facility that was licensed. It’s really the only way that would work for us because we’re nonprofit — we don’t have a whole lot of funds.”

Latta has a long list of commercial properties that she has crossed off that would be cost-prohibitive and mentioned the help of Steve Dahlberg from Paradise Cove as well as the Malibu churches. 

“I’ve asked a lot of people, had a lot of suggestions and followed up with a lot of leads,” Latta said. “I’ve asked people really stupid questions, but we’re having such a hard time.”

Latta said the school district has given them until the end of March to depart, but she hopes to stay until June to give the students a proper graduation.

“I can’t have that,” Latta said. “So we’re going to have to play it by ear a little bit, but the plan is to probably close on June 10th, I would say it will be our last day. I think in my head, I have to just be prepared to close, not only the school, but I have to deal with the dissolution of a corporation board of directors and the things that have to be donated.”

Benadum said Alicia Peak, a lifelong Malibu resident, school district advocate and parent of three kids who recently graduated from CCW, was helping her search for a new space in 2020.

Benadum said when the pandemic first hit, Latta went above and beyond with supporting the families and parents. She sent home weekly programming from what they would’ve been doing in school. Everything from worksheets to recipes for Play-Doh and cutouts to help reinforce activities. 

“It was incredible; there was never a moment where we felt we weren’t paying for the school at the time and even still we were 100 percent close and connected to the community there,” Benadum said. “She really went above and beyond. She has done an unbelievable job of managing all of the challenges of running a business and a preschool during the pandemic.”

Benadum said after trying to advocate and find a place for the preschool, the district has not been able to help them find a place to learn for their students. 

“The biggest thing is that we’re looking at an uncertain future,” Benadum said. “CCW has been within a school district property at one of the elementary schools since its inception and so now we’ve actually been emailing with the school board and it’s just not a reality for CCW to have a space on an elementary school. For us, that’s really hard to focus because CCW has had a relationship with the local elementary schools for the last 40 years.”

Benadum said CCW feeds into these local elementary schools and in many ways prepares them for elementary school.

“I think when we [parents] started getting involved, Sherry reached a point about a month or two months ago, she sent an email and said I think CCW’s is going to have to close [its] doors,” Benadum said. “I’ve been trying to reach out to people. We have a whole list of people that we reached out to privately, more public spaces to try to get a spot for CCW and everyone has said no, or been very defensive, which is honestly kind of disgraceful on the community because this school is a legacy. 

“Families have come through there and how much good she’s [Latta] done and contributed to the community and at this point, no one can accommodate or make any space, especially because we need so little.”

“I think Malibu is always part of itself on being a family focused community and it’s something that is very much affecting the families of Malibu,” Benadum said. “I think if the community were to know about it on a broader scale and see it as an urgent issue about all these things our future is very uncertain.”