Early education staff blessed by vocation to children

Forming our future
By Jennifer Henry
While I was having lunch with my daughter, Mary, a couple came up to our table and said to me, “ I just want to thank you for taking such good care of my granddaughter at the daycare.” The grandmother went on to say that she had met me when her daughter came to take a tour of our early learning center.  I remembered her and could see in her eyes the resemblance to her granddaughter, Lilly Claire.  An overwhelming feeling of gratitude came over me! What a gift I have been given!  The opportunity to love and watch the 107 young children at St. Paul Early Learning Center grow and learn is a blessing and a privilege.
I said to my daughter what I had said when she and her siblings were growing up – “it takes a village to raise a child.”  You need lots of people to love your children!  We fondly  remembered  “Ms. Faye,” “Ms. Carolyn,” “Mrs. Lamar,” “Mrs. Wilcox” and how much a part of our lives these wonderful teachers and caregivers were.
I have been a principal leader at the elementary and high school level but now, as director of an early learning center, I feel even more passionate that our students’ first experience in education be rich in language and reading, music and song, play and fun, delivered by teachers sharing God’s love through their care.  As expert in Catholic education, Thomas Groome, says, “It is a sacred privilege and an awesome responsibility to be an educator.”
What do children need most though in those early years to succeed? Is it learning through play, or learning the ABC’s, colors, pushing forward and preparing them to pass the tests that lie ahead?  Have we forgotten what Friedrich Froebel, the German educator, who coined the name “kindergarten” originally meant – “a garden of children” – a place where each child is nurtured with the same love and care given to a seedling. Our modern day expert Mister Rogers might have said it best about early childhood learning, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children, play is serious learning.”
At a recent workshop presented by Christ United Methodist Preschool Program Director, Terre Harris, my staff and I were introduced to a book called, “Their Name is Today – Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World” by Johann Christoph Arnold.  The title of the book comes from Nobel Laureate, Gabriela Mistral:
“We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many things can wait. Children cannot. Right now their bones are being formed, their blood is being made, and their senses are being developed.  To them we cannot answer, “Tomorrow.” Their name is today.”
Terre talked about the importance of play, how tired parents are, how distracting cell phones are in raising children, the importance of reading and talking to young children, affirming the role of the teacher/caregiver and how it is critical to seize the time we have with our children. Terre’s presentation confirmed and energized the St. Paul’s staff’s focus on play, and learning through doing.
At St. Paul Early Learning Center we have enrolled in Quality Stars – Mississippi’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). The QRIS is a tiered block system. Programs must meet all criteria at one level before advancing to the next level. The program is administered by the Mississippi State University Early Childhood Institute through a competitive grant process from the Mississippi Department of Human Services Division of Early Childhood Care and Development. The requirements go above and beyond basic licensure requirements. Participating centers must meet all licensure requirements to participate.
My staff and I have found the Quality Stars program to be quite challenging. We are a 1 STAR but have great aspirations to improve and progress to at least a 3 or 4 STAR in the next year.  I believe the program provides an outstanding framework to achieve the important things in early childhood education: protection of health and safety, building relationships with children, family and community and opportunities for learning by doing.  Using this framework with our own Catholic school mission to teach the whole child – mind, body and spirit, brings a rich curriculum to our early learners.
We have great hope in successfully meeting our goal. We ask the readers of Mississippi Catholic to keep all Catholic educators and our programs in your prayers. Children are fragile like young seedlings and “their name is today.”
Carl Jung said it well, “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”
(Jennifer Henry is the director of  Flowood St. Paul Early Learning Center)