On a sunny morning at a lectern not far from the peals of children’s laughter, the state’s new secretary of education had time and reason for enthusiasm.
“I’m gushing because we don’t have enough of these statewide,” education secretary Beth Purvis said Wednesday at the Lighthouse Learning Center in Cahokia.
It wasn’t just the sparkling new building itself that Purvis and about 50 others admired at Lighthouse’s grand opening at the site on Jerome Lane. It wasn’t the stacks of toys, the shelves of books near reading areas or the soft, green turf forming a hill under the slide, either.
What so impressed Purvis on Wednesday morning, and others before, was the collaboration among the center, its food pantry, the local school district, area churches, the state and federal government, and agencies for health services to bring the classroom into being. The final result is a “More At Four” preschool that executive director Mary Kay Prader says is “child-focused.”
“I follow the experts, they do all the work,” Prader said to explain the center’s indoor and outdoor designs. “Every action we take should be child-focused.”
“More At Four” helps low- and moderate- income families have access to preschools with parent education and engagement services and referrals to health and dental services. Purvis said studies show that children who have achieved developmental milestones by kindergarten tend to fare better through third grade.
Each of the center’s classes is lead by a teacher certified in Type 04 Early Childhood, which requires a bachelor’s degree, and has a paraprofessional. The teachers’ average starting salary is about $40,000.
“The vision stems from placing highly-qualified, educated staff in classrooms,” Prader said.
Marla Ramos began bringing her daughter, Samantha Gonzalez, 3, to the preschool in August. Samantha is now part of the More at Four program and loves it, her mother says.
“The first day, when I came to pick her up, she said, ‘What are you doing here, Mommy?’” Ramos said.
She’s noticed a definite improvement in Samantha’s ability to pronounce words correctly since she’s started the school.
The school’s enrollment more than doubled with the news of More At Four, said Janet Carroll, the Head Start liaison and food pantry director. The school had 50 students at the end of January, and 103 students on March 17 with the actual More At Four opening.
Carroll said the school is licensed at 121, but can add 40 more because of the half-day program.
The grant that allowed the Lighthouse Center reaches farther than the students in Cahokia. The five-year grant also opens classrooms in Freeburg, Fairmont City, East St. Louis and Colinsville.
“I love to write grants, that’s what I do,” Prader said.
Patsy Mason, of the Childcare Resource and Referral, said the Lessie Bates Center in East St. Louis received part of the grant. CRR is among the Lighthouse center’s partners.
“We were just lucky enough to get one (classroom at Lessie Bates),” Mason said.
“As an educator, this is a beautiful space,” Purvis said of the Lighthouse building. “As secretary of education, how do we get it in other communities who don’t collaborate?”
She said part of her job now is to find successful programs such as Lighthouse – “we need to find other Mary Kays” – and replicate their efforts across the state.
The building sits on land once owned by Cahokia schools, and continues to rent space from the district, said Cahokia superintendent Art Ryan. The rental fees are “nominal,” as was the price of the land.
“The buildings would have sat empty,” Ryan said, adding that the district would rather see the community put the buildings to good use. If the school were ever to close, the building and land revert back to the district, Ryan said.
Purvis said the building itself was of “really smart design” in that its large rooms have low maintenance requirements. “Even the way the ceilings are done, it’s easily cleaned, easily patched, easily maintained,” she said. The classrooms are set up to allow teachers to be a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage,” she said, with areas for books, blocks, imaginative play and more. Lighthouse staff said each room has at least eight “centers” for the children to play and learn in.
The outside play area is shaded by mature trees and a permanent tent. There are several focus areas outside as well with themes of “nature” and “music,” with tubes to knock and drums to bang.
“I’ve always wanted music outside so they can be as loud as they want,” said Susan Davis. She’s the director of a Lighthouse Center in Waterloo and was in Cahokia for the morning to be a tour guide for the grand opening. She’s been with the company for 18 years.
“You can judge the quality of a school by the way the kids react to strangers,” Purvis said. When she walked into Lighthouse, she said a boy came up right away to say hi and ask what she was doing there. “I’m here for the party,” she told him.