“Phone, Kevin.” A toddle with a fist full of blocks has wandered into the main office area of USM’s Gorham Childcare Center. “That’s the fax machine, Preston, it’ll pick up automatically. Good ear though.” Program Manager Kevin Dean offers Preston a smile, and he returns to the Pre-School room. The walls are brightly decoratred with welcoming construction paper letters and pegs for each child’s snowsuit. The busy sounds of children playing happily in the background make it easy to believe that the USM Childcare Center has once again been granted accredidation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children..

USM Childcare was originally accredited in 1988. Program Director Allyson Dean states that less than three percent of centers nationwide are accredited. Manager Kevin Dean described the process of accredidation as one focused on “continually working on improving your center.” Re-accredidation is required every five years, and involves an in-depth self-study which looks closely at elements such as teacher-child interaction, teacher-parent interaction, curriculum, physical environment, heath, safety and nutrition. Teachers, parents, and administration go through the process which takes about a year for experienced facilities. “A lot of this [accredidation process] has to do with your philosophy– the way you treat parents, the way you handle children.” says Manager Dean. Because of this, initial accredidations can take several years. Dean gives this as one reason so few centers are accredited. It’s a very involved process and “you just can’t fake it.”

USM’s childcare is one of the early pilot programs for the state’s Early Learning Standards programs to assess early childhood development. Program Director Allyson Dean says that none of the programs are simply babysitting. For every age level, there are qualified teachers who work with the children as their career. Most of them have either an associate’s or four-year degree in Early Child Education. The program includes a fully certified, private kindergarten which is an option available to parents as an alternative to public school.

Manager Dean walked from room to room in the center, pointing out the bright plastic bins with each child’s name and picture on their own bin. Most of the toys are close to the floor, within easy reach of the children. The classrooms are all organized into different sections with water and sand tables, building blocks, dress-up clothes, books and art supplies. Dean explained that it is important to encourage independence, and that the program focuses on supporting each child in his or her development as an individual. “We’re a child-centered, not teacher-directed, program” and while teachers do plan activities to encourage the development of things like fine-motor and social skills, the most important thing is for the teacher to follow each child’s individual interests. If a child is inclined towards art, for example, the teacher will watch the child’s progress, encouraging them to try different brush and paper sizes, “giving them the props to explore.” In the kindergarten classroom, six children pose for a class-picture wearing paper chef hats and proudly holding up pizzas made of construction paper, tempura paint and paper plates.

The different sections within the program span a wide range of developmental stages. Chronologically speaking, the children are grouped roughly from six weeks- 18 months, 18 months- three years, three years- five, and a kindergarten for five- six-year-olds. Manager Dean says that while the groups are classified by chronological age, the center pays a lot of attention to each child’s individual development needs, moving them on when they are ready, regardless of their chronological age. “Even between three and five years, there are many different levels of development,” and these differences can help teachers in encouraging the children to learn because it establishes a familiy-like setting. The older sibling will teach the younger by providing a role model. Teachers act as role models for the student, and encourage younger children to follow the model of the older. To allow teachers to spend as much time with children on an individual level as possible, the group sizes are limited to about ten children per section.

Director Dean says that “most universities understand that childcare is a necessary ingredient” for the retention of faculty and students, particularly non-traditional students. According to Director Dean, it is more common for a university to have a childcare program than to not. The center was founded based on student need with 16 children in the sixties. In the eighties, the Department of Human Resources recognized the need for further development of the program. Today the regular program consists of about 100 children, 30 staff members and 50 work-study students. During the summer, USM Childcare also hosts summer camps for about 30 children, staffed by six people

The program is a part of the Department of Student and University Life. They are funded primarily through tuition revenues, and partially by federal grants. Aside from providing care of children, the program also offers a learning opportunity for USM students outside in Psychology, Human Development and Nursing majors. While USM has no Early Childhood Development major, Dean said that they quite frequently have students from Southern Maine Community College come to observe the children.

Childcare can cost families as much as $130 a week. Students can apply for assistance through the financial aid department, and childcare can be subsidized to be as little as three to five dollars for those who qualify. Students have first priority, but staff and faculty can also get childcare and financial aid to pay for it. The university offers some scholarships for staff as well. Cost varies according to age, with infant care being the most expensive. Care for school-age children costs the least.

Melissa St. Germain can be reached at [email protected]


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