BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – A new early learning center is set to open up as the new school year kicks off Aug. 18, and it will bear the name of renowned education activist Lew Williams.
The St. Petersburg campus of Pinellas Technical Education Center (pTEC), located at 901 34th St. S., will house the new educational facility consisting of an inspired staff, a community of excited parents and roughly 100 adorable toddlers. And it’s not too late to sign up.
“It’s like a little hidden treasure,” said Susan Weber, program director for the new site. Pulling up to the pTEC building Weber admits it doesn’t look like much of a preschool, “but you walk in and you are like ‘wow.’”
The Lew Williams Center for Early Learning has been years in the making. Since Williams passed away unexpectedly in 2011, the district has vowed to pay tribute to his 40-year career in education, both as an instructor and a Pinellas County School Board member.
The Lew Williams Project was quickly formed concentrating its efforts on eliminating the achievement gap by providing quality early Head Start and Head Start programs for families living in poverty. R’Club Child Care, known mostly for it’s before and after school programs, has partnered with Pinellas County Schools, the Juvenile Welfare Board, Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas and Lutheran Services Florida in order to create educational opportunities for children aged 1 to 4.
Staff, consisting of personnel from the various partners, to include four Pinellas County certified teachers, are set to embark on a school year filled with creativity and meeting the standards set up for children in the early education program.
“The whole atmosphere of the staff is so surrounded by this idea of what Lew Williams wanted,” said Weber as she discussed plans for the curriculum and the overall vision that Williams’ wife shared with employees. “It kind of just lit a fire under the staff, like this is what I want to do too.”
All teachers at the school have a bachelor’s degree or higher and their assistants are required to have at least a child development associative degree. An achievement not all preschools can live up to. Low student to teacher ratios are also in effect with two teachers per eight children for one year olds and two teachers per 10 children for two year olds. For three year olds there are two teachers for every 16 toddlers and those aged four have two teachers per 18 children.
Weber credits their ability to keep ratios low as a product of partnering with multiple agencies, all working to fund the huge endeavor of educating children at an early age.
Classrooms are geared toward showcasing student created works and provide everything needed for the early students to engage in learning. On aspect of the school that Weber hopes will set them apart from other preschools is the implementation of family style dining.
“We have to go out of the box,” Weber said discussing the plans for the upcoming school year.
Even one year olds will be taught how to scoop their food and pour their own drink into a cup, and with the room set up to promote independence, families will see their children reaching those educational milestones quickly.
“He was just squealing with delight,” said Weber recounting the turnaround of a reluctant one year old brought to the center for signup by his grandmother. After seeing the classroom and all that it had to offer, including the tot-sized sink set at his perfect height, the jubilant youngster was hardly able to control himself. “He didn’t want to leave.”
Pre-Head Start and Head Start programs are in session at the center from 8 – 4 p.m. Extended hours for parents who work or attend school are also offered for those in need, and for a small fee, starting from 6:30 a.m. through 6 p.m.
So what does a group of toddlers do with themselves all day at school? Well according to Weber, quite a lot. Classrooms are set up for milestones associated with each age level and children are encouraged to learn age-appropriate skills in a creative and fun environment.
“The sole purpose of the school is to have them prepared for kindergarten with the foundation of the skills that they need to be successful,” explained Weber who feels a Head Start program is essential for children, especially those in low income situations, so that they gain the necessary tools to be successful in their early educational years and continue learning efficiently through college. “That means providing a healthy start early on, but also having the parents to meet their needs.”
Family involvement is not only promoted at the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning, it’s required. Parents are expected to volunteer at least five hours a year either inside the school or performing outside duties. Monthly parent meetings will be offered with the expectation of parents attending at least six of them. Big family events are also planned throughout the school year and families are asked to show up to at least one.
“It’s all about building the relationship and connecting with the child,” said Weber who also requires her staff to conduct home visits in order to make that home/school connection with parents and the students in their classroom each day. “So if there is a need, they have a connection and maybe it’s easier to address.”
The school is staffed to provide additional services that other preschools in the area may not be set up for. Health screenings to include vision, hearing and dental are available, with personnel even set to assist families who may be in crisis.
“We’ll have resources available,” said Weber who feels the center is equipped to help families enrolled in the program deal with such issues as homelessness and domestic violence. Two family community specialists are assigned to the site and can also assist in solving more immediate issues. “If a child’s not sleeping on a bed because of lack of money, we will look for a bed for that child.”
The Lew Williams Center for Early Learning is still open for registration. Although signup for one and two year olds has reached capacity, there is still room for three and four year olds. The open spots are sure to go quickly, so for more information or if you want to schedule a tour, email Susan Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 727-914-4935.