A large TV simultaneously hosting six surveillance camera feeds is the first thing you notice when entering Cynthia Brown’s office at Learning & Fun Preschool. It’s an honest testament to the environment many of the children in her care are growing up in.
Brown quickly explains the important role it plays. “It gives our teachers peace of mind. We’ve had trouble with people tampering with cars in the past and this gives us peace of mind so we can focus on the children.”
In a community where more than half of the children under the age of five are growing up in poverty, The Family Conservancy (TFC) has partnered with Learning & Fun Preschool for the last 15 years to ensure children have access to high quality early education (U.S. Census Bureau).
“For some of these children, this is the best care they are going to get. Sometimes the meals they receive here are the most nutritious, or only meal they will have all day. We aim to give them the best care they can get,” explains Brown.
For many of the children in this community, getting into a high quality child care facility is an opportunity. It may sound like a reach, but research suggests high quality early education can be the difference between a lifetime of success and a continuation of the cycle of poverty. These early years are integral to success in school and life, because by the time a child enters kindergarten, 90% of brain development has already occurred (Rauch Foundation). This puts children who do not receive proper stimulation and support early in life at a daunting disadvantage. This also means that a child’s first teachers, caregivers, have an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the children in their care. This is something for which Learning & Fun Preschool has become known. “Some of the schools have expressed gratitude for our program. They’re so happy to see the children that come out of our program, because our kids are way ahead,” comments Brown.
Cynthia is proud of her work, and rightfully so. She gleefully talks about one of her “children” who recently signed with the Denver Broncos, and quickly rattles off the names of a half dozen who have visited since receiving master’s degrees and PhDs. These adults come back because they see the important role Learning & Fun Preschool played in their early years. And it’s not just former students coming back for a visit, many of the staff members are former students.
Brown is quick to credit these successes to her team — a group that understands the challenges their students face and often go far beyond the duties detailed in their job descriptions. Brown explains with a recent story, “We have a family that is homeless and two of our teachers pooled their money together to buy them clothes. They really care, it’s not just a paycheck. They love these children.”
Providing a high level of care has been no easy task, but the support of TFC has been invaluable. TFC helped Learning & Fun gain accreditation from The National Association for the Education of Young Children for the first time in 2004, get reaccredited from 2010 to 2015 and most recently from 2015 to 2020. They are currently the only accredited child care facility in their community (Missouri Dept. of Social Services).
As Cynthia discusses the accreditation process she pulls a six inch binder from a large shelf and quickly follows with seven others, just as thick. These portfolios are a large part of the accreditation process and can take more than eight hours apiece to assemble. They force the center to take an in-depth look into every facet of their program -- from curriculum to facilities.
To get accredited, Learning & Fun Preschool staff were required to rate the program's strengths and weaknesses. Then a professional child care expert observed and reviewed the program. Items reviewed included: relationships between staff and parents, curriculum offered, staff training, health and safety standards, and the environment of the program.
In preparation for the first accreditation, TFC provided funding to make necessary facilities improvements and worked with Learning and Fun Preschool staff to create an effective curriculum. Trainings provided by TFC helped the team understand children's needs at different ages and learn to offer activities and experiences that aid in a child's growth and development, and prepare them for school.
Through each accreditation program, coach Nancy Heathman provided ongoing support. Several consultations helped Learning & Fun Preschool gain a understanding of the accrediting organization's standards and help them align their programming with expectations.
Nancy’s support and guidance made the process seem easy. “The first time, they were here for about six hours, and bam — we got accredited. Five years later, they were here for four hours. Never have they had to say we can’t pass you or your need to work on this and that’s because Nancy came out in advance and helped us with a lot of things. She knew what they were going to look for,” comments Brown.
Although the process is difficult, maintaining quality early education program in a community where many families are struggling financially and most rely on financial support to meet their child care needs is a true testament to success. State payments on behalf of children do not cover the full cost of care and providers are often left absorbing the additional costs. Accreditation, unlike licensing, is a choice for child care providers. Learning & Fun Preschool chooses to take on the additional workload and incur the costs of accreditation, because they know the process -- under the guidance of TFC who was able to provide Nancy’s services free of charge through grants -- is helping children.
Children at Learning & Fun Preschool are not simply learning reading and writing. They’re developing important social-emotional skills that are often overlooked, but are integral to school success.
“Often programs fall into the trap of making sure our kids know their ABCs, can count to 100 and know how to say their name. These are all important, but children who enter kindergarten with strong social skills -- that know how to respond to an adult, that know how to sit in a chair, that know how to play with friends and share — do better in school because teachers tend to gravitate to children that are compliant,” explains Heathman.
In addition to preparing children for school, the Learning & Fun Preschool leadership team does an excellent job of educating parents -- helping them understand why children need to be to school on time, express pride in their child’s accomplishments, and identify and meet needs their child may have.
The end result is children leaving Learning & Fun Preschool prepared for kindergarten and on the road to successful futures.
Heathman sums up the success, “Accreditation took this program from being a program that loved children to being a program that gets kids school-ready.”
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