Flagstaff YMCA early learning center achieves Quality Plus rating, Tour recognizes partnerships are key to closing achievement gap

“When a group of 25 people walked through the Flagstaff YMCA Early Learning Center on a recent Tuesday, the toddlers and preschoolers hardly noticed. In each classroom the children were happily painting with their fingers, reading with puppets, and playing make believe, with the teachers, playing right along with them.

All of the positive teacher-to-child interactions happening at the center that day were typical. This is just one of the reasons the YMCA Early Learning Center recently moved up to a Quality Plus rating in the First Things First signature program, Quality First.

In recognition of the Flagstaff center’s accomplishment, local leaders were invited to tour the center to see how quality early learning and childcare is helping prepare kids for kindergarten.

“It matters when our students leave here and arrive to kindergarten on the first day ready,” said center director Autumn Emkeit, who led the elected officials and community organizations on the tour and discussion on why early learning matters for kindergarten readiness.

First Things First is a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help kids be successful once they enter kindergarten. FTF’s Quality First program works with child care centers and home based providers throughout Arizona to increase the level of quality through research based practices to ensure that children are ready when kindergarten starts.

During the tour, Flagstaff Unified School District Superintendent Barbara Hickman explained how critical it is for kindergarteners to be exposed to quality early learning experiences.

“On the first day of kindergarten there is already an achievement gap,” said Hickman, who added that FUSD funds full-day kindergarten. “Preschool matters to us a great deal because we are interested in making sure that students aren’t already starting out at a disadvantage, particularly with the relentless focus for students and teachers for high stakes standardized testing starting so early.”

Emkeit walked the guests, including Flagstaff Mayor Jerry Nabours, through each classroom and talked about how community partnerships, local grants, professional development training and extensive support through the Quality First program enhanced the learning environment for the children.

“Eighty percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time a child turns 3 years old.  So we are responsible for a huge part of that learning,” she said. “We really want to focus on early learning because it gives us that strong building block so that when they hit kindergarten they are not going to be totally surprised.”

Emkeit shared student portfolios that she uses to keep student progress charts that draw parents into the conversation around their child’s development and growth.  Parents appreciate being able to be part of their child’s learning through these tools, she said.

“So much learning is happening between the ages of birth to five, before kids even enter kindergarten. Yet we have so many that think, ‘agh, they will learn it when they start kindergarten,’ but we know we have to start earlier than that,” said Paula Stefani, FTF Coconino Regional Partnership Council Chair. “We also know that quality early learning happens in a variety of settings, including home care by a trusted adult and preschools. FTF’s goal is to get those resources to families to help a child learn starting from the day they are born.”

FTF’s Quality First rating scale is a tool for centers and families to assess their progress in areas such as quality adult-child interactions, learning interactions, learning environments and staff qualifications, said Quality First Coach Rhonda Etsitty.

Flagstaff parent Jeremy Shinoda and his wife used the quality checklist and search tool on the Quality First website, qualityfirstaz.com, to help them find a care center for their two year old son, Alexander, prior to moving from Indiana.

“Our top priority was to get him into a good school,” Jeremy said.  “We were familiar with Indiana’s Paths to Quality program and sought out the Arizona equivalent.”

“The Y has been great. Communication with teachers, aides, staff and the director is open and consistent. I value their input and feel they value parental input as well. Email and phone calls are addressed very promptly. They also provide us with excellent, easy-to-follow supplementary materials covering learning and developmental goals for use at home.”

“They gave us the Act Early sheet from the CDC, a snapshot of what you should expect when your child is two through five years of age. It’s just 25 bullet points but we put it on the refrigerator. So when he does something new, my wife and I look at each other, and say, ‘oh, he did that thing on the list’.”

Jeremy said he sees his son learning every day bringing home concepts he has learned from his teacher, Ms. Tonnie.

“There are many great quality schools for your child, but based on your personal preference, one school may be better for your child than another and it takes research, site visits and meetings with staff to get a better understanding for what will work best for you and your child,” Jeremy said.

Like many child care centers, the YMCA has seen their share of challenges, from changeover in leadership, directors and teacher turnover.

“It doesn’t come easy-peasy.  It’s definitely a lot of work,” said Emkeit.

“I want to recognize Lindsey and Autumn for their tremendous commitment to the Flagstaff youth and families…and to really commit to moving this Flagstaff education center forward.  We are really excited about that,” said Libby Corral, Valley of the Sun YMCA Vice President of Programs in recognition of the center director, Autumn Emkeit and operations director, Lindsey Combe. “Thank you for all the support the community has given to our staff and to parents.”

YMCA leadership from Phoenix and Flagstaff attended the tour and shared they hope that all 16 branches across the state can achieve this and higher levels of quality. Two other YMCA centers have received the Quality Plus rating.”-First Thing First