Education

High quality childcare is vital to kindergarten readiness

Students at Jamison Street Preschool in west Pensacola engage in center-based, interactive learning throughout the day. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

An Early Learning City is a community that supports early brain development, parent engagement and school readiness for all children, with a primary focus on ages 0 to 5 years old.

It enlists the entire community in building a culture of lifelong learning, especially in its preschool and daycare centers.

Research indicates that children who receive a high quality early childhood education have better math, language and social skills as they enter school, and as they grow older require less special education, progress further in school, have fewer interactions with the justice system and have higher earnings as adult.

Among the goals of the Studer Community Institute is to improve the community’s quality of life, and providing quality early education is an important part of them.

One of the key 16 metrics included in the Pensacola Metro Dashboard is kindergarten readiness. The first five years have a tremendous impact on a child’s early

In the latest Florida Department of Education statistics on kindergarten readiness rates in 2014, only 66 percent of Escambia County’s 5-year-olds were kindergarten ready at the start of school.

That’s why early education and kindergarten readiness are among the key areas of SCI’s focus in the coming months and years ahead.

As I travel around Escambia County meeting and talking to heads of agencies, organizations and childcare providers, it’s refreshing to find people and places who understand the importance of early education and who work diligently to help young children grow and learn through quality care.

High-quality care is characterized by the caregivers’ warmth, support and cognitive stimulation of the children under their care.

For more than two decades Peggy Steward has been providing quality care for young children in Escambia County.

As owner and director of Jamison Street Preschool, Steward has been instrumental in early education and kindergarten readiness for more than two decades.

Of 200 licensed childcare centers in Escambia County, only 15 providers are Gold Seal Quality Care programs. Jamison Street Preschool is one of them. The school also was only one of two of the Gold Seal programs to school 100 on the state’s readiness rate in 2013.

Florida’s Gold Seal Quality Care program was created in 1996 as a way to improve program quality in childcare and serve as a symbol of quality for parents when choosing a childcare provider for their children.

When you make an important purchase, you shop around, compare quality and prices, ask questions and talk to other people using the product. So when you choose childcare you should take these same steps to ensure quality care for your child.

Steward believes little babies are best left with their mothers until their first year. Afterwards, she advises parents to find a place that has trained teachers, provides a safe environment and offers quality care.

Steward faced a challenge this year when 10 of 17 children enrolled in the 4-year-old Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program had never been away from home in any preschool or daycare environment.

The children had no social skills, faced difficulty communicating and interacting with others and didn’t know simple things like shapes or letters.

“The extra task is social skills,” Steward said. “You can’t teach anyone until they get social skills.”

Researchers have found that childcare is important to the cognitive, language and social development of young children, with consistent and emotionally supportive care being hugely beneficial to children and families.

Choosing quality care is important for babies and toddlers, who need nurturing, safe environments in order to thrive.

Parents can ensure that their children are in high-quality childcare by looking for caregivers who are loving and responsive to children’s needs, provide a stimulating environment, and engage with children by talking and playing with them frequently.

Steward advises parents to check licensing, inspections and complaint history by contacting the Department of Children and Families license center.

“To me, quality care is most important,” Steward said. “To give a child the opportunity to thrive, a childcare center must provide the best possible teachers with lots of resources.”

Jamison Street is licensed for 45 children from 12 months to 5 years old. The school has a waiting list.

Of the 10 instructors, half of them have at least 10 years of experience in childcare.

On my visit to tape segments for Studer Community Institute television show on BlabTV, it became clear why Jamison Street is noted for its quality care.

On the southwest side of Pensacola off Barrancas Avenue, Jamison Street Preschool offers a center with bright space playrooms, lofts, screened play area, wooden playhouse, outside deck for activities, a gazebo and separate playgrounds for each age group.

Surrounded by pockets of poverty, Jamison Street offers parents and their children a haven for early learning in a safe, enriching environment.

Teachers for each age group don’t babysit. They sing songs and read stories. They talk and play. In one exercise, a teacher used marshmallows to show shapes and to demonstrate stacking before the treats became a morning snack. The instructors focused heavily on social and emotional development.

With 12 years in early education, Erin McCarthy understands that the children are the most important part of her job.

“I make sure they’re safe and get along with others as much as they can,” McCarthy said. “We really want to focus on their social and emotional development.

Even though 1-year-olds can’t read, McCarthy said it vitally important to read to them at school and at home. Toddlers need books with sounds, bright colors and large pictures, she said.

Steward is especially proud of the school library system. All around the center more than 2,000 books are crammed in tubs, spread on tables and stacked on shelves.

Each child had a library day to check out a book to take home. That’s important, Steward said, because some parents don’t have books at their homes.

Steward is aware that some parents don’t have the time, the resources or the knowledge to provide the best learning environment for their children.

That’s why she works so hard to offer quality care at affordable costs.

“Parents pay our salaries, so they should expect their child to get the gest they can while in our care,” Steward said. “As we all know, childcare is not a highly-paid profession, but working provides the opportunity to find inner fulfillment in helping small children learn and grow.”

To help parents find the best care and to provide caregivers with valuable information and instruction, Steward has published a book about her work in childcare.

“Childcare Revealed” is described as “A guide through the ups & downs of a challenging profession.”

The book outlines the important steps in running a daycare center, from staffing to operations to describing a typical day.

“We need to educate young people and old too on the importance of caring about children’s welfare and learning,” Steward said. “These children are our future, so preparing them properly is a necessity.”