By Kelley Lane for Seward City News –
The long awaited Big Bay Beginnings Child Development Center located at 520 Fourth Avenue (previously Resurrection Christian Church) was approved for occupancy by the City of Seward this past Wednesday (February 8th) and has its State of Alaska inspection scheduled for mid February, with an anticipated opening of April 2017. Big Bay Beginnings will provide a full time learning environment for children ages 3-6, operating from the hours of 7:30am – 5:30pm, Monday through Friday. Enrollment is currently open, spots are available and all families are welcome to enroll their young children. The center has space for up to 20 children in their learning center that focuses on “creating a strong community of learners,” according to Brittany Swanson, Big Bay Beginnings Program Coordinator.
This past Friday, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the staff members of Big Bay Beginnings, touring the facility and talking with Director Carol Conant about the curriculum and philosophy of the center. Carol explained that Big Bay Beginnings is “open to every family” and is designed to be “culturally responsive,” which means that their curriculum will focus on the cultures of the families whose children attend the center, with an “infusion of Alaska Native culture.” The physical lay out of the building is meant to represent the center’s curricular values. For instance, when parents first walk into the center with their children, they will walk through the “Parent Education Room”, which will have bulletin boards with updates on their children’s learning and then proceed through a secured entryway with a coded door, which meets State safety code. Directly inside the secured entryway is the “Making Learning Visible,” on which will be displayed the observed learning of the children that has been taking place.
Conant grew up in Seward, where she graduated from Seward High School before continuing on to earn her BA in Elementary Education from the University of Montana in Missoula, during which time she did her student teaching here in a Seward 3rd grade classroom. Upon graduation, Conant accepted a job in Perryville, Alaska, a village of 115 people, where she taught six students between the ages of 5-8. Later, she took a job at an infant learning program because she realized that she wanted to work with the early childhood age, a time when much brain development happens and children gain the learning skills that provide a base for later development. Conant returned to Seward three years ago with her husband and three children, Ridge, Elsie and Annabelle. She has been working on developing the curriculum and structure for Big Bay Beginnings since 2015, when she was brought on staff by then director, Brittany Swanson. The process has taken much longer than either women expected, but they say that it’s allowed them the time to develop a solid foundation.
Brittany Swanson has been part of the project since its inception, in October 2014, which was when the original grant was awarded from Qutekcak Native Tribe (QNT) for 1.3 million for developing a three year sustainable project to get a program up and running and to hire staff members. Swanson was able to clear up a few details about the grant funding as well as what Big Bay Beginnings has as its goals. According to Swanson, the grant was not meant to be indefinite or to cover the costs of operating the center. The business model for Big Bay Beginnings will be such that student tuition costs ($850 per month) will cover the staff salaries, and additional grant funding will be sought for volunteer teacher salaries and other ongoing costs, which they plan to apply for from foundations such as the CIRI Foundation. Big Bay Beginnings has benefitted thus far from grants from the Seward Community Foundation in the amount of $20,000, which paid for the center’s outdoor playground, and the Rasmussen Foundation which paid for the cost of the interior furniture, purchased from Community Playthings.
In talking with Brittany Swanson, there were a few other potential misconceptions that she hoped to clear up. Big Bay Beginnings is located directly across the street from the AVTEC gym, but does not have an affiliation with or receive funding from AVTEC. The center hopes that AVTEC students may enroll their children, but they don’t receive preferential enrollment. Further, although the center has received substantial funding through native organizations, enrollment is open to children and families of all backgrounds.
The staff of Big Bay Beginnings is required to be trained in early childhood development, with at least 12 college credit hours of early childhood specific education. The State ratio requirement mandates a 1 teacher to 10 student ratio, but Big Bay Beginnings will have three teachers for their 20 students, as well as an administrator who will cover mandated breaks for the three teachers. Students need to be in the process of potty training in order to attend, and bathrooms are located on the teaching floor, which allows for the center to maintain its teacher presence with students while children have easy access to bathrooms at all times.
Big Bay Beginnings will use a child centered curriculum that focuses on play and uses zoophonics to teach children to read. More information about their program can be found at: http://sewardaknatives.com/child-development-center/ , by calling them at: (907) 362-5667 or by stopping by 520 4th Avenue during the hours of 9-5, Monday through Friday.