The Littlest Scholars

Stepping through the doors of the Senator Charles Cook Children’s Center a visitor is met by calm. If not for children’s artwork displayed on the walls, the toys and the cuddly rocking sheep in the waiting area you would be surprised to find children playing behind the yellow, red and blue doors.

From 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, the Center is a home away from home for 58 children between the ages of two and five.

“We are a place where parents can bring their kids while they get an education,” said Cindy Joao, a teacher of the 4 and 5 year olds at the center. Joao has been teaching at the center for 30 years.

More than half the children’s parents are New Paltz students. The rest are the children of faculty, staff and members of the community.

The program was founded more than 35 years ago and began in the basement of the Old Main building. The center was then moved to Van den Berg Hall. It has occupied its current location overlooking College Pond for about 10 years.

Considered part of the Student Association, the center receives part of its funding from the university budget. This special relationship gives the Center a vital role in the life of the campus.

“Since the Student Association  is run by students, fundamentally the students are validating our presence on this campus,” said Marcia Villiers, director of the Center.

Additional funding is provided by New York State through the Operating Grant and the Childcare Development Block Grant. These grants cover the operating expenses and allow tuition subsidies for those students who qualify. Students pay the lowest tuition and have priority for open spaces.

“At most child care centers you get either a full-time or a part-time schedule,” said Joao. “Our flex-schedule really helps students out. It works beautifully because students can actually just take the time that they need for their educational classes or to do homework or whatever else they need.”

Although this flexible schedule creates more work it allows the children to benefit from constant social interaction. The Center’s focus is on the social and emotional development of the children.

Alison Pletch, a chemistry major, came to the Center as a 3-year-old. Even now, Pletch has strong memories of singing in class and the stories her teacher, Charlie Hoerr, told during the afternoon  story time.

“A place like the Children’s Center with its philosophy,” said Pletch. “Leads to well-adjusted kids because it’s a place children can really rely on for support.”

The teaching style of the Center is eclectic and relaxed. The staff is well-read regarding educational philosophies. The Center encourages melding of diverse educational ideas.

“The curriculum is pretty alive so things can evolve and change,” said Joao. “If someone has a great new idea or way they want to approach it then we’re on it and trying it. In doing it this way I feel like we’ve really created something that really works and is open and feels that newness can come in at any time. It’s a good thing. It’s good for me as a teacher. I want to be able to feel that I can do something completely different.”

The campus is not just a backdrop for the Center. The children make visits around the campus especially during the spring. One of the children’s favorite trips is to the Sojourner Truth Library for storytelling. The children also take hikes along the pond and enjoy feeding the ducks.

The campus provides the center with another valuable resource: students.

“We don’t bring adults into the classroom just to fill up space,” said Joao. “Our work study positions are really valued.”

Brianna Buckler, a second-year elementary education major, has been working at the Center for two years. Although the job is provided through work study, Buckler says she would work there even if she wasn’t getting paid.

“I have learned so much here,” said Buckler. “I don’t know if I would be the same person without working here. I have gotten to see the children grow and learn and experience.”

The Children’s Center’s presence on the New Paltz campus provides the children with an valuable resource they will take with them as they set off on their journey as lifelong learners.

“The Children’s Center may on some subconscious level have been a developmental pillar for me in growing up,” said Pletch.