Early Learning Center gives kids, parents a calm start

One single mother hurries from the bus stop pushing a stroller in the rain.

Other parents run in from distant parking lots around Everett Community College, lugging heavy car seats to be picked up by relatives later in the day. Many are tired, schlepping backpacks and rushing to get to class. Sometimes their kids are crying.

But in the lobby of the Everett Community College Early Learning Center, there is a warm greeting from staff and morning rituals that offer parents and children a calm second start to the day.

“My son Aidan thinks it’s just great here,” said Misty Carpenter, a Marysville mom and college student.

Operating as part of the family life and early childhood education departments of the college, the Early Learning Center offers affordable child care and preschool programs for about 70 student families each quarter, center director Kelly Davidson said.

The center’s benefits for the children, ages 1 through 5, are easy to see: small play groups, lots of conversation and creative learning activities, quality toys, nutritious food, attentive teachers, and a culturally diverse staff.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the help for parents, most of whom live on low incomes.

“Parents who are students have to be so organized. Think of raising a toddler and driving in from Monroe early in the morning to go to school full time and hold down a job,” Davidson said. “These parents are passionate about quality education for themselves and their children.”

Without the on-campus convenience and support the student parents receive, life would be even more complicated and stressful, Davidson said. Participating in the center ultimately means that parents have more time to study and have more time to spend with their kids, she said.

“If the center wasn’t here to help, some parents could forget about accessing an education or ever getting a living-wage job,” Davidson said.

The center also counteracts the isolation felt by many single parents, she said.

“We try to set up a community here that feels safe. It’s a place where parents can learn about child development and build friendships,” Davidson said.

The morning rituals continue.

With strollers and car seats stashed near the door, there’s time to peek at the new toy figurine in the terrarium on the center’s front counter and scan the day’s lunch menu posted in the hallway leading to the center’s classrooms.

Parents and children wash their hands. Coats are hung up. The lights are low, soft music plays and breakfast is about to be served. The goodbye is easier now.

Some parents will return at lunch and spend time volunteering in their children’s classrooms, a requirement of enrollment at the center.

For parent and college student Lisa Terry, the Early Learning Center is a home away from home.

Lisa, 17, and her daughter Rilee Prescott, who’s nearly 2, arrive at the center about 7:15 a.m. every weekday morning. Lisa then heads to class at Everett High School where she is finishing her high school credits.

At lunchtime she does a little homework and is back at the center spending time with Rilee and other children before walking over to her college classes. By mid-afternoon Lisa is at her part-time job with the Everett Parks and Recreation department. Rilee’s dad or Lisa’s mom picks Rilee up at 5:15 p.m. when the center closes.

“I feel good about the help we get at the center,” Lisa said. “Rilee loves it. Everything the staff does fits our needs perfectly.”

The Early Learning Center programs are accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which is a mark of quality generally considered by early childhood educators to mean that the center is tops in the areas of education, health and safety.

Along with parent and community volunteers, the college’s early childhood education practicum students and interns are on hand at the center to help the teaching staff. Teachers include those with graduate degrees and more than a dozen years experience at the Everett center.

Four college faculty families are allowed to participate in the child care programs, and the Early Learning Center maintains a waiting list for families who also want to enroll their children. Next year, enrollment will increase after a planned expansion project adds three preschool classrooms and a parent education classroom to the center, Davidson said.

Support for the center comes through funding from the college, student activity fees and payments by families, who pay around $1,500 a quarter for full-time child care.

In addition, state grants are issued through the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, which offers family support free to about 16 families enrolled at the center. Other families get assistance through the Department of Social and Health Services, Volunteers of America and the Tulalip Tribes.

The Early Learning Center also depends on help of the community through donations to the Everett Community College Foundation, Davidson said.

Other help comes in the form of donations to the center’s My First Library program, which seeks to send new age-appropriate children’s books home with families to add to their home libraries. Encouraging families to spend time reading together during winter break is the focus, Davidson said.

Carra Connors, 30, said such encouragement is what keeps her going.

“Several years ago, I would not have been doing as well as I am now,” she said.

A self-described recovering drug addict, Connors said she is especially thankful the attention given to her son Spencer, almost 2, who receives speech and physical therapy.

“His teachers are so patient and helpful. When I am at the end of my rope, they give me the support and remind me that everything will be OK,” Connors said. “They are the best people in my life.”

Reporter Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427 or gfiege@heraldnet.com.

How to help

The Early Learning Center invites the community to donate to its preschool programs and facility expansion through the Everett Community College Foundation. Call 425-388-9434 or go to www.everettcc.edu/foundation.

For those interested in volunteering at the Early Learning Center or donating new children’s books to be given as gifts to families through the center’s My First Library program, call 425-388-9121.

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