Childcare extraordinaire

B Y - T R A C Y - C O L E Y - C U R L E E - ( A B J - '9 0 )

UGA's McPhaul Center provides a nurturing environment for children and the student teachers who get real-world experience there

It's an unseasonably cool summer morning, and the sun has just come up over the trees surrounding UGA's McPhaul Child and Family Development Center, as Adriana Quiros—her arms overflowing with toddler and gear—opens the gate that leads to her son's classroom.

"Good morning . . . Hi, Daniel!" says teacher Terry Sibley, as mother and child come through the door. "Daniel!" echoes a chorus of exuberant three-year-olds who have just taken notice of their classmate's arrival. Squirming free from his mother's arms, Daniel races over to a fleet of little cars and trucks waiting for him by the front windows, as his mother puts his school bag in his cubby and signs him in.

"Vrrrooom-vrrrooom" is all Adriana hears from Daniel, who is entranced with a yellow car that he maneuvers across a table, oblivious to the other activities going on in the room. A little girl and boy are cooking a pretend meal of pizza and vegetables in the kitchen. A three-year-old in a fireman's hat is headed to a make-believe blaze, his siren blaring the whole way. Two children are quietly rolling Play-Doh on the art table, making birds and star shapes with plastic cutters. There's also the inevitable toddler who's had a hard time telling her momma goodbye, but a teacher is making the situation better by reading to her from The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

In short, there's nothing remarkable about this day at McPhaul. But there are many remarkable things about the University's 73-year-old, on-campus childcare facility, where UGA's three-part mission of teaching, research, and service is practiced every day amidst a nurturing educational environment where children from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and with varying intellectual and developmental abilities are encouraged to imagine, learn and create.

McPhaul's tree-shrouded playscapes are a source of delight for children, who prosper and grow in a nurturing environment where the teacher-student ratio is 1:4.

McPhaul sits in the shadow of Stegeman Coliseum, which keeps an ever-vigilant eye on the children frolicking on the brightly colored playscape that looks out on Carlton Street. To one side is a set of nondescript brick buildings where McPhaul's parent school, Family and Consumer Sciences, holds classes and conducts research. On the other side is a series of white greenhouses that belong to the horticultural department.

Inside is where McPhaul really shines. It recently received national accreditation, a designation earned by only seven percent of the nation's early childhood education programs. The teacher-child ratio—1:4—is exemplary by anyone's standards, and each child is free to engage in his or her own activity with careful guidance from a trained child development specialist.

Parents are welcome in McPhaul's six classrooms, as observers behind a one-way mirror or as interactive participants in classroom activities. Even the food is good, with hot, nutritious lunches fortified by morning and afternoon snacks that one parent characterizes as "full meals in themselves."

Established in 1928 as a nursery school run by the home economics department, McPhaul provides real-world experience to future child-life educators, who acquire their skills in a learning lab that provides a fertile environment for research that benefits children across the U.S. McPhaul currently has 114 children enrolled in full-time programs, which cater to children as young as six weeks up to five years of age. McPhaul also offers two half-day Head Start classes during the regular school year and a summer day camp for ages 5-8.

Children attend McPhaul for various reasons. Many are dependents of UGA faculty, staff, or students, who relish the idea of a childcare facility within walking or easy driving distance of their office. Daniel's father is a research scientist and Ph.D. candidate in botany; his mother is a State Botanical Garden employee who is working on a master's in horticulture.

"Before Daniel was accepted this year, my husband and I juggled our schedules so someone was always home with him," says Adriana, who, like her husband, hails from Costa Rica. "Javier would go into the office at 4 a.m. so he could be home in time for me to go to class. Now that Daniel is at McPhaul, we have a more normal schedule."

It's 9 a.m. now and Cindy Price has arrived with a cup of coffee in one hand, daughter Mary Catherine in the other, and son Jacob at her side. Mary Catherine, who was born with Down syndrome, started at McPhaul at 18 months. Five-year-old Jacob is attending summer camp for his second year. Mary Catherine gets a hug and kiss from her best friend Rebekkah, who also has Down syndrome (see sidebar on p. 38).

"McPhaul is the best place for Mary Catherine right now," says Cindy, "because she gets exposure to typically developing children, in addition to children who are like her. I think it's great that the other children in the class play with Rebekkah and Mary Catherine, because it teaches them how to help others in a group who may not be like them. They all play off each other's strengths—special needs or not."

McPhaul is nationally accredited, which only seven percent of early childhood centers can claim

"McPhaul allows children to develop at thier own pace," says McPhaul director Becky Olson (top left photo), "acknowledging that each child is an individual with their own personality and interests."

With a full-time inclusion coordinator on staff, children with special needs have the opportunity to participate in all activities with individualized assistance.

"While we recognize that these children may require special instruction," says director Becky Olson, "they are fully embraced as unique individuals."

McPhaul has been on the cutting edge of child development and full inclusion since way before inclusion was cool—before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997) made inclusion practices mandatory.

Betsy Wynne, ADA coordinator for UGA's Institute on Human Development and Disability, attended McPhaul as a child in the 1970s.

"I have had cerebral palsy since birth," says Wynne, "and with no other children my age to play with, my mother worried that I needed social interaction to develop. She discovered McPhaul, and the teachers welcomed me. That was when including children with disabilities in a regular child-care program was unheard of. McPhaul helped me gain the social skills that helped me transition to kindergarten and elementary school."

Each classroom has play centers that vary in design and complexity, depending on age and developmental interests. Children can participate in free play and decide which activities they want to be part of. Teacher-directed activities take place in the art and science centers, where teachers offer guidance and instruction on everything from the ABCs to cooking to making bird feeders.

"One of the best things about working at McPhaul are the resources," says Terry Sibley. "Each class is given a monthly budget to spend on supplies, books, or toys. Once the class is finished, resources are put into circulation so other teachers can use them. You don't find that at most childcare centers."

A new student, Joyce, enters the classroom. Initially, she spoke only Chinese, but after a couple of weeks at McPhaul she's beginning to pick up English. Because McPhaul is part of a Research I university, where people from all over the world come to study and teach, each classroom is a mini United Nations.

"This year, we had five kids in our class speaking English as a second language," says Elaine Pittman, head teacher in the younger toddler classroom. "All of the children were exposed to Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Portuguese, and some of the kids [who were only English-speaking] actually began learning different languages just from being around those children."

Cultural differences are incorporated into the learning experience.

"One parent of a child who speaks three languages came in and taught the children a nursery rhyme in Spanish," says Pittman. "Within a couple of days, one of the children could recite the entire rhyme in Spanish!"

Young teachers come alive in this environment. Some 500 college students, including some from Athens Tech, participate in McPhaul programs each semester, through either student teaching or research programs. And all lead teachers have at least a BA in education, child development, or psychology, with some holding master's degrees.

Inclusion coordinator Leslie Malanoski helps Rebekkah Curlee identify shapes and colors using sign language and verbal communication.

Inclusion is one of McPhaul's hallmarks

Inclusion wasn't in my vocabulary when my husband and I went shopping for a childcare facility when I was pregnant with my first child. When my doctor told us shortly after delivery that our daughter had Down syndrome, childcare was suddenly pushed to the back of my mind. It wasn't until the initial shock wore off that I realized the facility we had so carefully selected for Rebekkah was now inappropriate. There were too many babies in the nursery for her to receive the attention she required. Fortunately, Rebekkah's grandmother welcomed her with open arms until we were able to come up with a plan—which turned out to be the McPhaul Center.

McPhaul is one block from my office, and it has a well-established inclusion program equipped to handle any child with special needs. Just what we were looking for! Unfortunately, there were no slots open, so we were put on the waiting list.

Two years later, a slot opened up, and it's the best thing we could have done for Rebekkah. She has become an independent child capable of making friends and being a productive classroom participant. She's learned life skills—scraping off her lunch plate, being responsible for her things, following directions from adults—that she will carry with her for the rest of her life. She is expected to behave and listen like the typically developing children in her class, and she is accepted for who she is.

Rebekkah's physical and language challenges are not burdens to the teachers at McPhaul. As inclusion coordinator Leslie Malanoski says, "Anything is possible." Leslie observes therapy sessions, reports on Rebekkah's progress, and acts as a liaison between her teachers, therapists, and parents. She suggests activities productive for both Rebekkah and the other children in the classroom, such as hand digging for plastic toys in the playground sand. The activity stimulates Rebekkah's sensory awareness, strengthens her fine-motor skills—and she and the other kids get a kick out of finding treasures in the sand.

I'm now very familiar with the word inclusion. It means that Rebekkah is a functional part of her classroom and has opportunities to learn, explore, and just be herself, abilities and disabilities included. Rebekkah once received a sticker from her pediatrician that said, "I like being me." I think that pretty much sums up her first-year experiences at McPhaul. And what a great lesson for all of us to learn—to be happy with ourselves and to accept others for who they are!

—Tracy Curlee

For nearly three-quarters of a century, UGA students majoring in education or child and family development have been given the opportunity to observe and have direct contact with McPhaul's nursery school children as part of their curriculum. It was the first permanent school of its kind at a Southern university, and only the fourth in the nation.

Danielle Rupright (BSFCS '00), a child life specialist at the Children's Medical Center at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, says her internship in McPhaul's Head Start program provided invaluable preparation for her first professional job.

"I worked with children eight hours a week, with the same responsibilities as an assistant teacher—and it opened my eyes," says Rupright. "McPhaul taught me never to judge families on face value. Like here at the Children's Medical Center, just because a mom isn't here to be with her child doesn't mean she doesn't love him. She may have to be at work or take care of several other children. To me, that's a very valuable lesson about life, unlike how a lot of us grow up having everything at our disposal."

With Jacob deposited in summer camp, Cindy quietly opens the door to the observation booth that looks into her daughter's classroom. Mary Catherine's speech therapist, who visits her twice a week at McPhaul, has arrived. Leslie Malanoski, McPhaul's inclusion coordinator, sits in on the session to chart Mary Catherine's progress. Joining Cindy in the booth is an undergraduate student observing the children through a one-way mirror as part of a special education course. Using headphones, she listens intently to several conversations going on in the room. Marie Underwood, the speech therapist, encourages Mary Catherine to communicate with sign language and verbal combinations.

"Mary Catherine, what's this?" asks Marie, pointing to a picture in a book.

"How," responds the three-year-old, simultaneously giving the sign for house.

"Very nice, Mary Catherine! House!" says Marie, who is careful to exude praise before moving on to the next picture.

The student feverishly records her observations on a form provided by her instructor. The opportunity to do research while still an undergraduate is something else that makes McPhaul unique.

Several research projects are underway at McPhaul, including a project funded by a grant from the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. This project, led by child and family development professor Hui-Chin Hsu, "examines preschooler's understanding that other people may have different desires, beliefs, and feelings from their own." Most of the positive child-guidance techniques used in today's classrooms stem from child development research conducted at institutions like UGA.

McPhaul is a shining example of UGA's three-part mission. It's a teaching lab for both children and college students, it provides real-world research opportunities, and it's an invaluable childcare service to the UGA and Athens communities.

McPhaul's waiting list is sometimes two years long, and its recent accreditation lends added credibility and popularity to the facility. In its accreditation report, the National Association for the Education of Young Children commended McPhaul for its "warm and positive interactions among teachers and children," for a curriculum "rich in developmentally appropriate activities which allow the children to explore and make their own decisions according to their own interests," and for having a "high level of staff who understand child development and who recognize and provide for children's needs."

So what does this new accreditation actually mean for McPhaul?

According to Alan Simpson, public relations coordinator with the NAEYC office in Washington, D.C., accreditation is designed to build upon the local and state regulations already in place. Facilities like the McPhaul Center must meet certain criteria, such as quality curriculum and programing, highly qualified teachers and administrators, low teacher-to-student ratio, optimum health and safety standards, and low teacher turnover.

"Accreditation involves a process of self study, of finding out what we're doing and how we can improve to provide a valuable early learning experience for the children," says Simpson. "Once accreditation is awarded, a program gains not only a certain amount of self-respect and internal pride, but also prestige and external recognition that the program is of the highest quality."

It's late afternoon and the children have taken their naps, enjoyed a snack, and begun playing freely in the room. Adriana comes in after a long day at the Botanical Garden to pick up her son.

"Hi, Danny," she says. "Did you have a good day?" "Yes, Mommy! Look what I made!"

He points proudly to the hot air balloon he made. Daniel's balloon—a red one with a small clear plastic cup attached to the bottom with four strings of yarn—hangs from the tile ceiling beside Rebekkah's handiwork and a collection of other balloons made by the children.

As a model for childcare centers in the Southeast, McPhaul takes its role very seriously. And with its new accreditation status, McPhaul will be better-equipped to compete for federal grants that support research and service, and to maintain the quality teaching that McPhaul families have come to expect. The center has already received a $70,000 grant that is enabling McPhaul to provide continuing education to improve the quality of childcare available to families in the community, and Sharon Nickols sees a bright future for McPhaul.

"What began as an fledgling learning lab 73 years ago has become both a guidepost for ground-breaking research and an indispensable family resource for our community," says Nickols, dean of Family and Consumer Sciences. "No other school in the Southeast has a center quite like McPhaul, where in any classroom the future of child and family development is unfolding right before your eyes."

Tracy Coley Curlee (ABJ '90) is an editor in UGA Publications—and Rebekkah's mother. To learn more about the McPhaul Center, call Becky Olson at (706) 542-4929.

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