Friday, February 08, 2008

Cox Children's Center stands out

By Courtney Westlake

On a recent Wednesday at the Cox Children’s Center, members of the three-year-old class carefully spread tomato sauce on small circles of dough before placing handfuls of cheese on top.

“They’ve been really interested in pizza and eating pizza, so we’re doing projects about pizza and how it’s made,” explained center director Stacey Hembrough.

Hembrough, who first worked as a consultant and supervisor at the center before stepping into the director position, where she has been for four and a half years, has been working with children for 20 years and obtained her bachelor’s and master’s in early childhood education. Serving in administration was a personal goal as well, she said.

“I like the involvement with other directors in the community; I like the involvement with all of the children and all of the families,” Hembrough said. “When you’re a teacher, you are kind of isolated in your own classroom, whereas this way, I get to have a relationship with everyone.”

The Cox Children’s Center, located on UIS’ campus, accepts infants through school-age children, who are present in the summer only. When school is in session, there is a class for babies ages 6 weeks to 15 months and a class for toddlers ages 15 months to 24 months, as well as classes for two-year-olds, three-year-olds and pre-kindergarten children, Hembrough said.

While the environments in each of the classrooms may differ because of the ages, the same philosophies stand. The center has an interest-driven curriculum that is focused on engaging students in hands-on projects and providing them with quality interaction, Hembrough said, such as the case of the children making pizzas. The center strives to utilize an educational philosophy called the Reggio Emilia approach, which views children as very capable and strong, Hembrough said.

“A lot of Americans tend to view children as needy, and we believe a little differently,” she said. “We set up an environment to challenge them, provoke them and to make them discover things and wonder.”

Due to the strong curriculum as well as the diligence of its staff, the center recently became one of the first early childhood programs in the country to earn accreditation through a new system of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the leading organization of early childhood professionals. The process is voluntary, and reaccreditation must be achieved every five years.

“It was a year-long self-study and was very intensive,” Hembrough said. “We spent almost two years challenging each other to take risks and not be afraid of change. We found out in November that we received it.”

The accreditation, philosophy and many other aspects set the Cox Children’s Center apart from other childcare centers in the area, Hembrough said.

The staff expectations in regards to education, experience and training hours are very high, and there is very little turnover among staff members. The ratio of children per adult in the classroom is small in order to promote interaction, Hembrough said, and the center provides the only accredited infant center in Central Illinois.

“We also have an open door policy and encourage lot of parent involvement,” she said. “I think parents are starting to realize importance of quality and starting to become aware of what to look for when they're looking for early childhood care, so those things stand out.”