The Child Care Center of Evanston operates on the principle that "every child deserves to walk into kindergarten feeling confident and effective," says Executive Director Lindsay Percival. To help children reach that goal, she says, the Center offers "high-quality early learning in a caring environment" for 90 children 2 to 5 years old, 73 percent of whom are on subsidized care.
Through the Infant/Toddler Connections program, the Center also contracts with 10 Family Childcare Providers licensed by the State of Illinois to offer Home Daycare.
Two of the Center’s classes are state pre-k classrooms, funded through the Illinois Department of Human Services. Private donations from an annual spring benefit and holiday letter-writing campaign by the Center’s non-profit organization and board sustain it as well.
Equipping each successive group of preschoolers to enter kindergarten is a year-round project in the big house at 1840 Asbury Ave. All the teachers at the Center observe kindergarten classes so they are aware of "what the Center should emphasize, what the children need to succeed," Ms. Percival says. Among the things entering kindergartners should know, she says, are the ABCs, the difference between letters and numbers and how to recognize their name.
Underlying these are broader – and less tangible – proficiencies: "good communications skills and the confidence to ask questions; good social skills; the ability to self-regulate," she says – competences best acquired through human interaction.
Thus the Center has 24 teachers and assistants for its five classes. That kind of generous teacher-to-child ratio is essential to "mak[ing] sure children are curious and excited about learning," Ms. Percival says, adding, "It takes lots of staff to talk with children about worms."
She elaborates. "There’s only so much Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer can do." Research has shown, she says, that "interactions develop neurons in the brains of young children." Experts believe that interactions help children develop vocabulary; the larger a child’s vocabulary, the easier it is for him or her to learn to read.
Preschool teaching "is not just babysitting," Ms. Percival says. It involves laying the socio-emotional foundation necessary for learning to occur. Teacher training is ongoing at the Center. Staff must meet professional development requirements, and home daycare providers, many of whom have been with the program for years, come to the Center once a month for training and "share with each other. They feel like they are one group," says Ms. Percival.
Most importantly, she says, "the children bond, and that is the optimum situation for learning."
Ms. Percival, who spent nine years on the Child Care Center board, says she "fell in love with the place." She became executive director in June 2011 and keeps at hand a quotation that encapsulates the Center’s approach to education: "To really grasp a concept, children must act upon and represent it using every sensory modality: Write it, tell it to others, draw it, sing it, dance it around the room…" (Zemelman, et al, 2012).
The Center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and has one class for 2-year-olds and four for 3- through 5-year-olds. Both Center and home daycare classes "look like Evanston classrooms – diverse, interesting," Ms. Percival says. Three of the mixed-age classes at the Center are termed "developmental"; one is a Montessori class that becomes a developmental class in the afternoon.
Children whose parents opt for the Montessori class spend half the day following the approach of Maria Montessori. Her emphasis on "child work" and preparation for life, Ms. Percival says, led Maria Montessori to remove fantasy play and music from her classes for orphans in post-war Italy and Britain.
Tapping into children’s "natural curiosity," Ms. Percival says, the Montessori method encourages the manipulation of specific items in certain ways – for example holding, squeezing as preparation for writing. "It sounds strict but isn’t," Ms. Percival says. At the Center, the Montessori class experiences music, art and stories in the afternoon.
Teachers in the developmental classes use what is called an "emergent curriculum," teaching to the children’s interest, the director says. A book about a clay boy, for instance, generated related activities: acting the story out, making bread and chicken soup and fashioning pinch pots of clay.
"We believe children learn best through play," Ms. Percival says. Whatever the lesson, she says, the child "has to be able to internalize it through play." The gracious mansion that houses the Child Care Center, purchased with money raised by the Woman’s Club of Evanston in the 1970s, accommodates play of many sorts.
Each of the five classes occupies three light-filled rooms. There is a large-motor area in the basement, and outdoors, on the Center’s nearly acre of land, are shade trees, a wide lawn with a sandbox, a poured-surface bike track and, as of last year, a raised-bed garden provided by the Yellow Tractor Program.
"It’s like a huge science lab," Ms. Percival says of the garden. Children will plant and weed and then, as they did last year, harvest and eat the produce. Breakfasts and lunches from Gourmet Gorilla, a Chicago caterer specializing in locally grown organic food, complement discussions about healthy food choices.
Visitors further enrich the children’s learning experience. Lindy Rubin’s Reading Art program, which concludes with a visit to the Art Institute, "increases vocabulary and expands knowledge," Ms. Percival says. Outreach librarian Rick Kinnebrew brings stories and singing from the Evanston Public Library once a month.
Within the guidelines of confidentiality, Susan Munro of the Evanston Community Foundation has begun tracking children from the Center once they enter elementary school. And for the first time, Ms. Percival says, District 65 is asking for the readiness information the Center has, posing questions about what would help a given child.
The institution that was founded to care for children whose mothers responded to the call for workers during World War II has become a community tradition. "We have children whose parents and grandparents went here," says Ms. Percival. The Child Care Center is "educating generations, one family at a time."