Superior skills, quality merit distinction at Westbay Children’s Center
The Westbay Community Action Children’s Center was conceived to exceed the state’s requirements to ensure a superior early-learning program for children.
Although Rhode Island defines licensure requirements for an early-learning program, Westbay President and CEO Jeanne Gattegno and Maryann Finamore, division director of the Westbay Children’s Center, decided to pursue a quality, early-learning program, which is a greater cut above the minimum necessities. Today, the Center’s early-learning program offers exceptional curriculum, staff-per-child ratio, teacher certifications, and child assessment.
Exceeding the state’s requirements was a no-brainer for the Children’s Center’s excellent staff.
The Children’s Center is an early-learning program, not just a day-care center, which in the past simply allowed working parents to remain employed.
“Children can be in child care for more than nine hours a day. So why not go beyond the state’s requirements for licensure? Especially since there is compelling scientific evidence that shows the brain develops most rapidly between birth and age 5,” said Finamore.
The staff takes seriously scientific research on brain development in young children, which has established that future success depends on their early development. The Children’s Center incorporates the scientific evidence into quality programs run by well-qualified staff.
“We provide a good, solid foundation for our children. Our focus is on what kids do in our programs. The state defines what qualifies as an early-learning program and what it should look like. It defines teacher requirements. Our school also exceeds state regulations on the number of staffers per child,” said Finamore.
“Yet if you don’t have a teacher who leads kids in critical-thinking skills, it’s just play time. We offer quality programs that expose children to academic, emotional and social support,” she said.
The teachers have attained degrees in early childhood education and are trained in the Rhode Island Early Learning Standards.
In addition, the Children’s Center has received a stellar four-star rating from Bright Stars, Rhode Island’s quality rating and improvement system, which rates child-care and early-learning programs in the state.
The school’s mission is to encourage children to think and explore: To move them beyond minimal Yes or No answers. Teachers encourage children to play cooperatively with others and to work well together.
“If the child is playing with blocks, the teacher will ask, ‘Tell me what you are doing. What else could you do? How could you make the structure bigger?’
“We want children to have a love for learning. If we establish that by the time the child leaves our program, we feel successful. If there is enthusiasm about learning, and the children continue to have a joy for learning, then we have achieved our goal,” said Finamore.
The red schoolhouse on 22 Astral Street in the residential Warwick neighborhood of Hoxsie and Governor Francis Farms has six classrooms, six teachers and seven teacher assistants plus auxiliary staff. Licensed for 109 children, the Center currently enrolls 72 preschoolers and 24 after-school children. Westbay’s is one of the original seven programs in Rhode Island chosen as a state-funded Pre-K program.
l Preschool program: A full day for 3-year-olds
l Two full-day, pre-kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds
l A full-day kindergarten class
Morning nursery school held three days per week for 3- and 4-year-olds
l School-age programs
Unfortunately, Mother Nature was hardly beneficent when Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the schoolyard when she ripped through the state in 2011. All 12 trees on the perimeter of the playground collapsed around it.
“It was as if a vortex took down every tree. All the playground equipment was destroyed. The fences were smashed. It cost $8,000 just to remove the trees,” said Finamore.
The good news is that some of the schoolyard equipment was salvaged, like the swing set and trikes. Several parents donated outdoor play equipment.
The Children’s Center then applied for a grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national organization dedicated to helping residents transform distressed neighborhoods into healthy, sustainable communities.
LISC’s staff, in collaboration with local community-development groups, helps identify challenging priorities to deliver appropriate support.
According to LISC, its mission is to create good places to work, do business and raise children. LISC generates corporate, government and philanthropic support to provide local community-development organizations with low-interest loans, grants and equity investments; local, statewide and national policy support; and technical and management assistance.
“LISC provided a grant opportunity in Rhode Island called Natural Playgrounds. We applied last year and we received $25,000 from LISC, which was matched by the Westbay Board of Directors at $25,000, for a total of $50,000, to build a natural school yard,” said Maryann.
In Phase One of the Center’s plan, the new playground will house butterfly and hummingbird pavilions, hardy plants and multi-trunk trees to create inspiring natural playtime for children and a “play hill” for children to climb.
“The idea for the natural-habitat playground is to connect children with nature. The concept is that urban children no longer go outside and play creative games. We are working with a landscape architect who will plant indigenous plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, so kids can experience nature instead of climbing on monkey bars. We will also plant more multi-trunk trees where kids can get into the foliage and sit in the middle of the trees,” said Finamore.
To help raise money for the natural-habitat schoolyard, parents sponsored a Pasta Supper, which augmented the sum of $50,000 with $2,000 donated by families and local businesses.
Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian attended the fundraiser dinner, which was catered by Carrabba’s Italian Grill at Warwick’s Pilgrim Senior Center. Volunteer DJ Christopher Mederios played music that kept everyone dancing.
Groundbreaking for the schoolyard occurred in late September.
The entire construction of the schoolyard as designed by the landscape architect will take several years to wrap up.
Phase Two for the school yard will focus on volunteer participation spearheaded by the Center’s Parent Council.
The parents’ group meets monthly. The parents are committed to hosting additional fundraisers to continue with projects such as creating a dramatic stage and a book nook.
“We salvaged wood from the fallen trees, so we will have areas with tree-stump benches and slices of bark for a balance path. In one area we plan to have a stage with tree-trunk benches to sit on to watch performances,” said Finamore.
The cost of running the Children’s Center, with its emphasis on excellence, is considerable.
“To retain the caliber of our excellent teachers, we support them with competitive benefits and wages,” said Finamore. The school just received an $85,000 grant from the United Way for the next three years, beginning in January.
“Our tuition cost is competitive with other early-learning centers. We also have an extensive scholarship program that we offer to cover tuition, for which families can apply, based on family size and income,” Finamore said.
Finamore has managed the school for 35 years, arriving shortly after graduation from the University of Rhode Island with a Bachelor’s degree in Child Development. For almost two generations, she has worked with children who have grown up with wonderful memories of Westbay Children’s Center.
“It’s been a fun, exciting profession. The kids who were here when I first started now have their children enrolled in our school,” she laughed.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Westbay Community Action’s Lauren Long and submitted for publication. It previously ran in the Westbay employee newsletter.