Upshur County is the home of a remarkably high quality, nationally accredited private school, a jewel that should interest young families and companies considering locating in Buckhannon. The Child Development Center operates in a beautiful building, one of the few designed and constructed for one purpose: the education of young children. The CDC is one of the few private preschools in WV that meets the rigorous accreditation standards of the NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Children. These standards are considerably more rigorous than any state requirements for licensure. The CDC, in its mission, is dedicated to serving as a model for other preschools, which includes staying current with research in early childhood education and innovation, which can lead to changes that challenge beliefs.
When I visit the CDC, the first thing that strikes me is the sound, the loud hum of children playing busily. I notice the colorful sunny rooms. I notice how well laid out the building is, so that the classrooms are open, but each area is its own separate space. I notice all the kids’ art work everywhere. I notice that when the teachers speak to the children, they speak in soft voices. Doors are open to the outdoor play areas. The tree house in a weeping willow is, of course, a special favorite. The atmosphere I’ve tried to describe is the result of extensive teacher training. Chuck Loudin, Executive Director, proudly notes that teacher turnover is extremely low, “a hallmark of an exemplary preschool.”
The CDC enrollment is 116 children; since some children come only 3 or 4 days a week, the average daily attendance is 92. About 12 are identified as special needs. Twenty enrollees are under age two. The youngest a child can be enrolled is six weeks.
The CDC is adjacent to the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan Campus, so education majors can and do take advantage of the opportunity to do teaching practicums there. The children delight in the enthusiasm of the college students, as I well recall when my own children went to the CDC.
Today we assume that children with special needs will get special education and that most of them will benefit from inclusion, which means they spend most of their school day with typically developing children. Parents of special needs children advocated aggressively over decades to achieve the laws we have today. However, when I was in public school before the laws changed, special needs kids were not only usually excluded from school, but many spent their lives warehoused in state institutions. A state institution was the first place I ever saw a person with Down Syndrome.
I’ll never forget sitting in church one Easter Sunday, maybe twenty years ago, next to an elderly woman who squeezed right up against me so that she could get farther away from a man with Down Syndrome sitting on her other side. She was very neatly groomed and attired as was he. After each hymn, when we sat back down, she scooted ever closer to me. The man did not suffer fools gladly. He quietly relocated to another pew farther back.
I was serving on the Board of the CDC in the 1980’s when we considered accepting special needs children. Confession: I was skeptical, especially because the first child was profoundly handicapped. She was unable to feed herself, unable to sit unsupported, unable to communicate. How could the Center meet her overwhelming needs? And the other children, how would they react? Really, how was this going to work? Encouraged by the vey well respected teacher, Kathy Hicks (now Kathy Payton), I voted along with other Board members to begin what seemed like an experiment. We knew the Upshur County school system would participate in meeting her needs so the other children would continue to have their needs met as well.
Here’s how it worked: the other children treated the special needs child with loving care. They were oblivious to her inability to communicate. They showed her books and toys and talked to her. They watched her tube feedings. They were not afraid or judgmental, just interested, and their interaction continued month after month. The parents of the child had some time five days a week to meet their essential needs.
So, at a tender age the typically developing children are becoming aware of and thoughtful about special needs people. And, some of them will be in future years the parents of special needs children.
Loudin, who’s been on the job since 1999, is a graduate of West Virginian Wesleyan College with a major in early childhood education. He got me up to date on the special needs program at the CDC, since my service on the Board ended a few years before he took the position.
Chuck said that when parents investigate enrolling their children, they often mention they are interested in socialization for their children. Chuck stated that at the CDC, they are interested in four developmental domains: social/emotional, language/speech, physical, and cognitive development. He added that the CDC also focuses on moral and esthetic development.
A child is eligible for special help if delays are formally identified in any of the domains. Although help is provided if delays are apparent from birth on, most children are not identified before age three.
When a child is identified as delayed, the CDC works cooperatively with the Upshur County Board of Education. The CDC hires and pays its own aides to work with the children and is reimbursed by the Board of Education. Loudin is pleased with this arrangement and with the control it gives the Center. These aides are there every day. In addition, the school board sends two special needs teachers for one day a week. One teacher is deaf and talks with her hands. The typically developing children receive as much attention as they would if the program were not inclusive and are not separated as the special needs’ kids get their instruction.
Loudin describes the typically developing children as very accepting. ”They don’t see anything wrong, just different. They don’t exclude the special needs children, “ he states. He notes that there is always a child who has a knack for mentoring special needs kids, an instinct to care for them.
Loudin proudly told me that some of the children identified as delayed make so much progress with the interventions if they are no longer identified as special needs by the time they enter public school. From my own work experience, I know that teachers working with parents accomplish a great deal more than conscientious parents do without a teacher.
The director and the staff, aided by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, work to stay up to date with research on best practices in early childhood education. Innovation will continue while foundational values remain strong. Meanwhile, Loudin and the teachers are working in the intensive year-long process to renew accreditation.