By ERIKA PRITCHARD
KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Early Childhood Education Center isn’t just for campus members.
It serves the children of community members, too.
Opened in November 2019, the LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center provides a welcoming, education-based environment where children from all backgrounds can learn and grow.
“I feel that every family should have the opportunity to send their child to an educational center to promote early learning and a love for education,” said Chelsea Bartling, the center’s interim director.
Since joining the center in July, Bartling has increased community enrollment there from three children to 33.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to branch out into our community in this capacity,” she said. “When we work together as a community, we can help build our best students for the future.”
Located near the Village Flats residence hall in UNK’s University Village development – just south of U.S. Highway 30, across from West Center – the Plambeck Center can serve up to 179 children from infant to age 6, including those with special needs.
Currently, the center has openings in each of its eight classrooms – infants (6 weeks to 9 months and 9-18 months), toddlers (18-26 months and 26-36 months), preschool transition (3 years after July 31), preschool (3 years), prekindergarten (4-5 years) and the Montessori preschool (3-6 years).
Children benefit from the Plambeck Center’s partnership with the university and its students. Education majors observe, volunteer and complete their practicums at the center. Parents also have the opportunity to participate in research conducted by UNK students and faculty at the Plambeck Center, such as science, technology, engineering and math projects.
“Parents get to take STEM activities home with them and go through this process and interact with their child,” Bartling said.
Additionally, children have the opportunity to interact with UNK students who are hired as teaching assistants and student workers.
To make room for more prekindergarten and preschool students last fall, Bartling and her team expanded these classrooms. These classes last all day, five days a week, and prepare students for kindergarten. To ease that transition, Bartling hopes to partner with the children’s future kindergarten teachers and principals so they can start building relationships early on.
Bartling also helps prepare parents for the transition. She gives them the kindergarten registration book and provides them with school resources.
Another class, the Montessori preschool, began on Jan. 4. This program focuses on hands-on learning and child-directed work. It is the only Montessori program in Nebraska outside Omaha, Lincoln and Norfolk.
In Montessori education, Bartling said some children may choose to work on projects such as writing cursive letters, identifying numbers or multiplication and division. They work on projects for three hours before an hour break.
“It’s amazing being able to watch those kids excel in the Montessori setting,” Bartling said. “This really prepares them for that school process and being able to do work and not get distracted.”
The class is taught by a Montessori-credentialed teacher who also has a master’s degree. The teacher guides students and models learning activities. This allows the children to develop independence and become fully engaged in their work.
Bartling would like to add a toddler Montessori class, which will provide education in self-care, care of the environment, large and fine motor skills, language and social skills. Parents can add their child to a waiting list for this class.
The other Plambeck Center classes utilize Creative Curriculum, which focuses on developing confidence, creativity and critical-thinking skills. A GOLD assessment is used to evaluate students’ development in the following areas: social-emotional, physical, language, cognitive, literacy, mathematics, science and technology, social studies, the arts and English language acquisition.
This assessment helps the lead teachers plan fun learning activities for each child’s specific developmental needs.
“It meets every kid, regardless of need or development. It meets them right where they are,” Bartling said.
The center shares each child’s progress with parents and eventually their future kindergarten teachers.
Additionally, the Plambeck Center incorporates the Second Step program and pyramid model into its curriculum. Bartling said Second Step teaches children social/emotional skills such as how to read and self-regulate emotions. The pyramid model develops social skills and focuses on positive behavior supports.
“We utilize things like Tucker Turtle to help students learn how to take deep breaths and calm their bodies,” Bartling said. “Super Friend teaches kids how to be a super friend. We look with our eyes, listen with our ears, take turns and share and make good choices. We’re safe, respectful and responsible.”
Bartling brings 16 years of early childhood education experience to the Plambeck Center, including 11 years as a preschool teacher and early childhood specialist with Grand Island and Kearney public schools. She also worked as a teacher’s aide and preschool teacher in UNK’s former Child Development Center while enrolled at the university as an undergraduate student.
Through her career, she recognizes the importance of providing a fun, loving and caring educational environment for young children.
“This is their first school experience, and we want it to be a positive one so they can be excited about learning,” Bartling said.