A thriving ‘center’ of the University: The UW-Whitewater Children’s Center serves student and faculty families, and trains future teachers, too

Oct. 22, 2014

By Vesna Brajkovic

In the depths of the Roseman Building there’s a school within a school, catering to a set of students who bring a new meaning to the word ‘nontraditional.’

The UW-Whitewater Children’s Center is am accredited year-round school and care center for children three months to six years old.

The center is part of Student Affairs so the staff’s “first priority is serving student families,” Interim Director Erica Scheep said.

Because of this, the rates for student-parents utilizing the services are reduced.

Rates vary depending on the ages of the children and the frequency in which they need to be at the center, but student rates are, on average, around $10 cheaper than those of faculty, staff and community rates.

The student and faculty and staff families make up around 80 percent of the total population of the center, which has an open-door policy for parents.

Although the children’s center is nestled in the center of a University, almost invisible to the hurried students passing by on their way to class, the staff there takes advantage of its place on campus, according to Scheep.

“It’s wonderful,” Scheep said. “It provides so many opportunities for the children to be part of a community. They have classroom community, and they can branch out to the center-wide community they’re a part of – we do collaborations between classrooms and things – and beyond that we have all these wonderful resources in the campus community that we utilize.”

The center has built many partnerships across campus including working with the gymnastics program, Intensive English Institute, undergraduate research projects, America Reads volunteers, Spanish classes for volunteer hours and most intensively with the College of Education.

“[Being on campus] provides for a lot of different opportunities that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Scheep said. “We love partnering with all the different groups and ultimately providing unique experiences for our children.”

The College of Education uses the center as a “laboratory school” or a place where student studying to become teachers can apply what they’ve learned through their college career.

“It’s very beneficial for us to have teaching assistants who have specific training in the area of early childhood,” Scheep said. “It’s a huge benefit to have them working here with our children.”

Specifically in the Early Childhood and Development program, when the students complete their certification they are able to teach regular and special education from birth to age eight. This program includes a number of field experiences they must go complete.

The UW-W Children’s Center provides a convenient place for students to get that experience, senior teaching assistant and Early Childhood Education major Maija Whitegon said.

“I liked that it was close so that I could work between classes if I wanted to,” Whitegon said. “I could be getting as much experience as I could while in school.”

The children’s center employs around 70 student teaching assistants, according to Scheep.

The children also go on trips and mini-field trips through different parts of the campus.

“I know when we do walks on campus, all the [university] students like seeing the little kids because they don’t always get that chance,” Whitegon said. “And the kids are always really interested in what’s going on around them; they love it.”

Perhaps the most visual aspect of the center is the outdoor play space located in a fenced-in space between Roseman and the University Center.

A few years ago the play space made a switch from a typical playground to a more natural space, which included built-in hills, a sand area and large, loose pieces of branches and logs. These all serve to ignite imagination.

“There was a big shift in our thinking of the outdoor space,” Scheep said. “Before it was more of a playground atmosphere – what you might think of as traditional recess – but what we know about very young children is that the outdoor space in nature provides almost like another classroom for those children. That was the shift, to take down the old playground equipment and create a more natural space.”

The outdoor time is an important part of the learning process, according to Scheep.

“We strongly believe their play is their work, and they’re learning through play,” Scheep said. “We are very much a play-based center.”

Scheep said that the center is “always looking for extra hands.” Students interested in volunteering can fill out an application at www.uww.edu/childrenscenter/electronic-application.

Volunteers must participate in a training program prior to starting in the classrooms, but there are different levels of volunteers/visitors.

The minimum level is putting in less than 15 hours total and doesn’t participate in the full training, with little interaction with the children and are not counted in the mandatory teacher to children ratio.

The next level of volunteers must participate in all the same training that teaching assistants do and are counted in the ratio.

The ratio is according to the National Association of Young Children (NAYEC) standard, which states that infants and toddlers have a maximum group size of eight children, with one teacher for every three children. As the children get older there are more children per teacher allowed.

Achieving the NAYEC standard is more difficult than state licensing because ratios of teachers to children must be lower and teachers must have a higher education level.

Scheep said they always follow this standard, and many times have more staff than that requirement.

The center has been accredited by NAYEC since 1991, is licensed by the Department of Children and Families Division of Early Care, the Education Bureau of Early Care and Regulation and is a five star program under Young Star, according to the Children’s Center website.

For more information, including specific rates and volunteer applications, visit: www.uww.edu/childrenscenter

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