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NAU to open early learning and development center for children in spring 2023

Northern Arizona University. (WGCN Stock photo)

Northern Arizona University. (WGCN Stock photo)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Student parents, staff, faculty and the Flagstaff community will soon have a new option for early childhood education when the NAU Early Learning and Development Center opens in Spring 2023.

The center has long been a passion project for many College of Education (COE) faculty. A grant of $1.8 million has allowed the project to become a reality.

An early learning and development center under the purview and support of Northern Arizona University has been in the works for a while, said COE assistant professor Victoria Damjanovic, the principal investigator for the C-CAMPIS grant who has led a team of educators to bring the early childhood education center to fruition

The initial plans for the center are to admit children three to five years old, with the goal of expanding that age range to one to five years old. Priority will be given to student, staff and faculty in the hopes of serving the NAU community; the broader community also will be invited to participate.

“We plan to make the early learning and development center a site of exemplary practice,” Damjanovic said. “We really want to showcase educational techniques done right and the potential of what children and teachers can do in that space.”

Damjanovic’s academic focus is early childhood education and special education; she has worked as a preschool teacher, behavior analyst, developmental specialist, teacher and parent educator and worked with children and families with special needs where she gained substantial experience with ADA accommodations.

Her guiding goal for this project has been to take everything she and her colleagues have learned and create a place ideal for learning in a safe and healthy environment.

“We want to disrupt the long-standing standardized ways children are measured and focus on where individual children are, how we can support them and learn through inquiry and play-based authentic ways versus ‘skill and drill’ methods,” Damjanovic said. “Essentially, it’s going to be a developmental lab school focused on looking at children through an assets lens, what they can do and are capable of, versus a deficit lens focusing on what they can’t do and the social construct of ‘readiness’.”

Dean Ramona Mellott and President José Luis Cruz Rivera discussed the lack of an early childhood center, and both were eager to take concrete steps to remedy that.

The grant will be distributed over four years and will help subsidize the tuition for NAU student parents who qualify. Additionally, it will help cover assistance with writing, mental health and resources for student families.

One of the center’s goals is to help parents graduate with fewer barriers by providing their child with high-quality care and early education. The grant also will help fund the salaries for teachers, a pedagogical liaison from COE to work with the center director, professional development for teachers and learning materials for the classrooms.

Inclusivity and representation are additional goals for the center as well; children of various abilities will be accepted. COE is preparing its students for this type of classroom through a blended program for early childhood education that includes special education. The goal will be to bring services and support into the classroom versus pulling students out. The center will enroll 25 children in the first year, and the college has been creating systems to apply and be placed on a waitlist.

A center director has been hired and the center will also be looking for dedicated teachers. In addition to the exciting opportunities for professionals currently working in the education field, the center will allow practicum and student teachers the opportunity to gain real-life experience and build their credentials. The initial teachers also will be mentoring pre-service teachers like COE’s early childhood special education program practicum students and other NAU students.

Damjanovic is excited about the opportunity of interdisciplinarity and cooperative research that may be possible through the center: engineering students may be researching how best to explain STEM concepts to preschoolers; nursing students might be interested in visiting to perform check-ups; athletics could create active programming.

“We’re creating a model for how to have an early learning and development center that is a campus asset, so it’s not just for the College of Education but rather it will benefit the entire university,” Damjanovic said.

Information provided by Northern Arizona University.

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