For nearly four decades, an early learning program at Central Washington University has provided child care for the children of university students, faculty and staff.

The goal is to enable the adults to focus on work and studies, while the children receive care and learning opportunities.

Spread across two locations on the Ellensburg campus, the program serves children 4 weeks to 12 years old and integrates play-based learning to simultaneously help prepare young ones for a strong start to K-12.

But it’s not just CWU graduates and a strong group of young learners the program is growing. The site also hosts practicum students and student staff, contributing to a strong future teaching force.

Introducing the programs

CWU’s early learning program might be a little-known gem outside the Ellensburg community, but it has deep roots tracing back to 1983, said Michelle Hill, the programs’ director. Today, it exists as two child care programs that aim first and foremost to serve CWU students with children, and then cater to staff and faculty with kids as space is available.

The Rainbow Center on CWU’s campus at Michaelsen Hall serves as many as 23 infants and toddlers at a given time. Nearby, the Early Childhood Learning Center, tucked among student apartments, has four classrooms of 15 students from age 2 through 12.

“Our main goal is for student-parents to be able to take classes (and) bring their child to a homelike environment,” she said.

The number of students at CWU with children varies from quarter to quarter, Hill said. There is usually a wait list at each program.

Children of CWU students generally make up the bulk of the wait list for infants and toddlers, while children of staff account for the majority of a wait list of 4- and 5-year-olds, and sometimes school-aged children, Hill said.

Up until four years ago, ECLC only served children up to age 8. The expansion has been especially helpful amid the pandemic, since it allows the program to support school-aged children in hybrid learning, Hill said.

The cost of attendance varies based on services. Parents can choose a morning, afternoon or full-day schedule. Their kids must attend at least two days a week.

Students are offered a lower rate than staff, with the full-day cost of care for an infant costing a student $30, compared to $44 for a staff member. For students, the child care fees can be charged to their financial aid package.

Early learning

The two CWU programs use Creative Curriculum, teaching materials that incorporate play to solidify foundational and social and emotional skills — “self-help, letters, numbers.”

“We meet the child where they’re at, developmentally-wise, and then we (tailor) the curriculum to their needs,” Hill said. “They go to kindergarten very prepared.”

Hill said she gets this information from parents whose students have graduated into kindergarten, whose teachers say they’re mature in a range of skills.

“I’m very proud of that,” she said.

It’s a prudent goal. State data show that students with foundational skills like listening to instructions, sharing, holding a pencil and understanding the concept of numbers prior to entering kindergarten are more likely to meet standards on third-grade math and reading exams. Those are in turn indicators of whether students are likely to graduate from high school.

As it stands, just 51.5% of students enter kindergarten with the skills needed to be considered ready. In the Ellensburg School District, 46.2% of students do, according to state data.

While parents are their children’s first teachers, access to high-quality child care programs can contribute to kindergarten readiness.

In Central Washington, supply is one of the barriers that could be contributing to low kindergarten readiness rates. In Kittitas County, for example, there were 729 child care slots in 2019 according to Child Care Aware of Washington, compared to 2,283 children 5 and under. (Read more about the problem with child care supply in Central Washington here.)

Part of the fix

CWU’s early learning programs might be part of the solution in more than one way. In addition to contributing to the supply of high-quality child care in Kittitas County, the two sites help educate future early learning professionals.

Hill is one example of that. Starting out as a lead teacher for kids aged 3-4 at ECLC in 1998, she worked for 10 years before becoming the program’s assistant director. Another nine years on, she transitioned into her current role as director in 2017.

In addition to directing over a dozen professional staff with the support of assistant director Brittany Tyler, Hill oversees 50 to 60 student staff each quarter. She also helps guide five to 10 CWU students majoring in Family and Child Life — which can lead to work in settings like hospitals or social service agencies — through course work at her programs, she said.

On top of that, she opens her classrooms to early learning students to teach.

Each quarter, Dr. Dia Gary, an associate professor in CWU’s Department of Education Development, Teaching and Learning, brings early childhood education students to classrooms within the child care programs to teach lessons.

“I find that when I plan authentic engagement with ‘real students,’ my students learn so much more and can bring theory into practice and application,” Gary said in an email. “It is the difference between reading about driving a car and driving one. BIG difference.”

Students in Gary’s program can become certified teachers and go onto work in preschool through third-grade settings, or work with children in non-public school settings, she said. This qualifies them to work in a range of settings in the early childhood field, from hospitals to child care centers, adoption agencies, and more, said Gary.

“We have the trifecta,” Hill said of the outcome of the university’s early learning programs. They support parents, young students and the early learning sector itself, she said.