Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center, Peoria, Illinois

Helm (1993) describes the planning, organization, and mission of the Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center in Peoria, Illinois:

"VALESKA HINTON EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION CENTER:

How a Community Collaboration Can Make a Dream Come True

As the first bus pulled up to the door on August 25, 1993, five very small children and their eager parents stepped down and were greeted by the smiles and tears of over twenty people. Together, staff and collaborators saw a dream come true for the city of Peoria and its families. A beautiful, innovative early childhood center stood behind them, barely ready in time for the 278 children that would soon fill it for the first year. The satisfaction felt across the city that day was not just because of the new building. Rather, the superintendent, school board, public building commission, district staff and personnel from other early childhood programs in the city (Head Start, YMCA, Urban League, and daycare centers) and from the local businesses, community college, and university all felt the pride in their involvement in the unprecedented planning and collaboration process which led to the $7,000,000 Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center.

A Challenge and an Opportunity

Like so many school districts, Peoria serves students from diverse backgrounds. Statistically, the district was becoming more typical of an urban district. Forty-six percent of the children came from low income families; forty-eight percent were minority. In some schools, a teacher would have a turnover of almost two-thirds of his or her children from the beginning to the end of the school year. Peoria's low-income housing units with accompanying social problems added to the difficulties. At the same time, affluent and two-career families struggled with the problems associated with coordinating child care. In addition to the challenges facing educators of older children, the family of the young child (as the child's first teacher) faced problems because of a lack of a central institution with responsibility for young children.

In Peoria, programs like Head Start, Chapter One, At Risk, and other private and public programs operated under separate recruitment and admission policies, funding sources, and regulations. Typical of all communities, some children received excellent services, others minimal services, and some children were falling through the cracks entirely. Also typical of other communities, there had been difficulties with an outmoded 'rift' between what was perceived as 'educational' programs and as 'child care programs,' which did not match the holistic nature of the young child's learning patterns.

An opportunity to find solutions to these concerns occurred when it was necessary to remove an older school as part of an urban renewal project. When it came time to replace the building, it was decided to focus the new school on the early years, where rapid expansion in available funding was occurring and where research indicated programs have the best long-term payoff in achievement. This school was to be built in cooperation with the city of Peoria.

In November 1990, in a soon-to-become historic meeting, a group assembled to 'advise' on development of an early childhood unit school for ages three to seven. It was soon discovered that two heads were indeed better than one, fifteen better than two. The advisory group became a Task Force with working committees. Ideas came quickly; community collaboration spin-offs occurred. Problems within the system of early childhood programs were identified. Data was gathered. A dream emerged for more than just a new school-- rather for a prototype community process to provide the best start for all its young urban children.

In November 1992, the Task Force was involved in the selection of the Leadership Team of the center: the Director, Professional Development Coordinator, and Community and Family Liaison Coordinator. As the planning progressed, the Task Force became an oversight group for six Work Groups with sixty community and district people who would plan the details of student selection, curriculum, assessment, parent programming, staff selection, and school climate.

With consultants providing additional expertise, the Task Force and Work Groups attempted to bring the best practices into the unit school as identified through research. In many cases, Task Force decisions broke the paradigms and expected traditions of the public school system.

The Time Paradigm

The Hinton Center now opens at 6:30 A.M. for before-school care and doesn't close until 5:30 P.M. when the last child leaves extended care. Two nights a week, the Center stays open until 7:00 P.M. for parent/child activities in a separate 2600-square-foot Learning Center. The Center offers school twelve months a year with a total of 180 school days. To maintain achievement gains, vacations are spaced evenly throughout the year instead of one long summer vacation. Child care remains available for children during vacation periods.

The Transportation Challenge

The high mobility of families had become a problem for school success. Children changed neighborhoods and changed schools frequently, with each move resulting in lost learning time. A commitment was made to bus the child and family back to the center, no matter where or how often that family moved. This necessitated intensive collaboration and cooperation with the transportation department of the district and the transportation department of the Community Action Agency, which operates Head Start. Twenty-two buses now serve the center's children every day.

Building a Community Concept

As a result of nuclear family mobility, increased isolation of families from grandparents and other extended family members had increased. Finding and maintaining supportive relationships for young families had become more of a problem for all income levels of the community. In response to this, the Center was designed to develop and encourage long-term family and staff relationships through a sense of community. It was decided to break the school up into smaller units to offer maximum 'connectedness and belonging' to the 400 three- to seven-year-olds who would eventually be served. Dr. Lilian Katz, University of Illinois, who consulted in the early phases of the design, suggested that it would be beneficial to break the school into smaller units, like 'villages.' This suggestion was the impetus for the Center's village concept, its key design component.

The Center has four villages (Red, Yellow, Blue, Green) where children and families will be for their four-year stay. Within the Center, agencies fund classrooms in the villages. There are two Head Start classrooms, funded by the Peoria Community Action Agency; two STAR classrooms, funded by state Pre-kindergarten At Risk Funds; one Even Start classroom, funded by grant; and seven pre-kindergarten classrooms, funded by Chapter One.

The building has a separate classroom area for each village. Large paned windows and glass door panels enable teachers and children from one room of a village to see into another room. Each village consists of five classrooms: two primary classrooms (mixed-age five- and six-year-olds). Children and their families enter a village and remain a part of it for four years. The staff of each village assumes responsibility for the achievement of the children within their village. In contrast to a regular school where a teacher has responsibility for a child's achievement for only nine months, the village teaching team has responsibility for achievement for twelve months each year for four years. Children will remain in one pre-primary class for two years and then move into one primary class for two years. During this four-year time, children will have only two teachers enhancing the relationships. Teachers and parents will know each other well and be able to provide support to each other over that four-year period. Each sibling will enter the same village; so in some cases, children and families will have relationships with teachers and staff that extend eight to ten years.

Building Commitment

Collaboration and communication between members of the teaching team is crucial for the optimal development of children. Collaboration by teachers enables the multiplying of ideas, sharing of time consuming non-instructional work, brainstorming of new ideas, problem solving, and encouraging and reinforcing new techniques. A large planning office is located within each village where staff meet, plan learning experiences, and communicate about child and family needs.

Another collaboration area in each village is the small kitchen where teachers and parents gather for a cup of coffee and conversation while planning cooking activities and preparing snacks. A small conference room is located in each village for confidential conversations, coaching of teachers, and for conferences with parents. The room is also used for working with individual children, for small groups of children, or for special services that may be difficult to provide in the regular classroom.

All staff (leadership, custodial, teaching, office, and food service) participated in team building activities. The vision was passed from the staff to the Leadership Team, and goals for each unit of the school were written consistent with those ideas. An annual Commitment Ceremony was begun in which the names of children were presented to each village and candles were lit to pledge commitment to the success of those children.

A Friendly Physical Environment

The Task Force was committed to having the center feel welcoming and warm to the children and families. The architect and interior decorator from LZT and Associates worked closely with the Task Force to accomplish this goal. The basic color of the interior floors and walls is a warm ivory. Door frames and window trim are in the primary color of the village--red, blue, yellow, or green. The Yellow and Green Villages are on the east end of the building, the Red and Blue Villages on the west end. A floor mosaic of primary-colored tile dominates the central foyer with a large skylight about it. From the mosaic, tile paths in the village color lead to the classroom areas in the east or west ends. Here, under another skylight, paths split over a tile design made by children and go to the individual villages. In this way, even the youngest children can find their village and feel at home in the center. Classrooms are large and airy. Each classroom opens onto a covered patio where learning can be extended outside. The classrooms are subdivided through the use of equipment to provide cozy learning nooks for individuals and small groups. A carpeted meeting area is in the center of each classroom for large group gatherings. Each classroom has a bathroom with a preschool-sized toilet, sink, and lavatory. Both an adult-size and child-size sink are in the classroom area. All clocks, bulletin boards, and chalkboards are at eye level of the young child. On each end of the building are large, grassy outdoor play areas, as well as climbing structures and extensive tricycle trails with traffic signs and lane markings provided by the city. River Valley Bank led a fund-raising campaign to equip the playgrounds. Plans are in place for dry creek beds, which can have water run through them. Funding is currently being sought for this feature.

A Place for Parents

The warmth and welcome was extended to parents by providing a special place within the school for them. Parents can come with children on the buses. After dropping off their children in the villages, a parent may bring any younger siblings to the Sibling Care Room, which is specially equipped for infants and toddlers. Parents can then participate in their child's classroom or join an adult education, literacy, job training, parenting, or nutrition class provided through collaboration with other community agencies in the Community Classroom. Lockers are available for parent use, and parents can join their children in the classroom when lunch is served family-style in small table groupings. A Toy Lending Library provides books, toys, and games for parents to check out and use at home.

A Place for Teachers

A need was identified through the planning process for additional training of teachers in early childhood education. A Professional Development Center and Training Room were added where teachers can do research and study early childhood education. The Biefeldt Foundation, a local foundation, provided funding to equip the Professional Development Center. Training will be coordinated with local colleges and universities. Beginning the second year, a two-year Professional Development Cycle will be offered to district teachers of pre-kindergarten through second grade. As part of the Cycle, teachers will come to the Center for a nine-week residency to learn new techniques and methods and develop plans for implementation in their own classrooms. Non-district private and non-profit day care and pre-school staff will also be invited to participate in the Professional Development Cycle. Through collaboration with a local cable television corporation, classrooms can be observed in the training room, courses can be sent to other schools, and classrooms can 'broadcast' programs for other classrooms.

Looking to the Future

Collaboration and coordination for the Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center must remain ongoing processes. The Task Force still meets to provide guidance and direction to the staff of the Center. A new Parent Advisory Board is starting, and a parent representative will be added to the Task Force. Additional coordination and service delivery concerns are being identified, and there is an increased commitment to collaborate and work on these concerns. The Center has sparked renewed interest in development of the surrounding area, which has been cleared for urban renewal. The sounds of bulldozers and construction crews fill the area again as a new shopping center and new housing are going up. Standing in the middle of all the construction is the completed early childhood center, a sign to the community that collaboration and cooperation can create something beautiful for children and families." (p. 57-59)

References

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