By Michele Graham
Photos By ChiChi Ubiña

Three decades—so much has changed, so much remains the same. And nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than at the YMCA of Greenwich Early Learning Center. As it celebrates its 30th anniversary, this stalwart beacon in the community — fondly known as the ELC – can be depended upon to meet the evolving needs of Greenwich families. For countless children, this is where they receive a remarkable start.

More Than the Typical Preschool

The ELC is unique by Greenwich’s or anyone’s standards. Yes, it offers the tried and true combination of creative activities, boisterous fun, early education, and caring teachers, but it is also goes steps further to make it a treasured part of so many families.

Flexibility. While the typical preschool is open weekdays from 9am to noon during the school calendar, the ELC is open from 7am to 6pm and operates year-round.  For parents that have prolonged work demands or need extended childcare, this support can be a godsend.

Infants, care for the very youngest. It is one of the only programs in town that takes infants. In fact, the need in town for infant care is so great, the ELC just opened its third infant classroom this September.

STEM programs …for preschoolers! Lorraine Hufnagel, a teacher on the pre-school team, says, “Our STEM program is courtesy of a generous grant from a donor this past April. We’re working with a consultant from Greenwich Academy to bring more STEM into the classroom and provide more STEM-based training for teachers. Preschools tend to focus on arts and reading – we want to give the children all the elements that map their brain. This grant enhances what we’ve been doing with STEM.” Lorraine lights up when she talks about the physics of bouncing and how the kids explore everything from bouncing balls to bouncing up and down on trampolines.

After School. The ELC offers two afterschool programs for elementary school students: at the Hamilton Avenue School and Family First in Education at the ELC. Family First is a collaboration with Family Centers that addresses support needs at school and at home, and is funded by the Per and Astrid Heidenreich Foundation. 

Financial support. Through scholarships from the YMCA, a grant from the Greenwich United Way and payments from state-funded Care 4 Kids, early education is made affordable for more Greenwich children.

YMCA resources used to the fullest. Resources like two pools, where children learn swimming and water safety. Boot camp in the YMCA’s gym instills a life-long affinity for exercise. There’s also cooking, gardening, music, and, in a true reflection of changing times, Zumba. And where the YMCA can’t fulfill every teachable wish, teachers and children hit the road in the Y’s bus (the perfect place to sing “The Wheels on the Bus”) travelling to museums and nature centers, where young minds and spirits expand.

Learning is Front and Center

Fun at the ELC comes in an educational wrapper. The ELC utilizes the Creative Curriculum and Teaching Strategies Gold assessment system to provide developmentally appropriate educational experiences for children birth to 5 years. While nurturing and caring have always been a staple of the ELC, Carly Adames, Director of Educational Programs notes how the developmental component has evolved. “Everything is data driven. We’re happy to have this system and to use iPads to enter documentation.” It’s this detailed observation that enables the ELC to identify where children need more support to reach the next level.

“For 30 years, the YMCA of Greenwich has been building strong kids with strong character at our Early Learning Center.  Our expanding role in attacking the educational achievement gap is critical to helping and championing youth / families and remains an intense source of pride to our YMCA,” says Bob DeAngelo, YMCA President and CEO.

This fall, the ELC, in cooperation with the Greenwich United Way, launched Early Children Achievement Gap Solutions, which includes a preschool instruction coach for the next 3 years. The on-site, in-classroom support provides immediate modeling, coaching and feedback. It’s a program that’s proven to be eight times more effective than traditional training methods.

Though part of the YMCA, the Early Learning Center calls St. Roch Church home. The church, across the street from Hamilton Avenue School, has some of the most spacious classrooms around. Carly observes, “Our classrooms are much larger than state requirements, with room to learn and explore.” Right now, the Center is in the process of turning its library into a full-fledged media center. More than a place to store books, the media center will be a dynamic space where children can read and build literacy amidst cozy furniture.

Teachers are the Tipping Point 

Those who know education know that the tipping point is the quality of the teachers. Lorraine Hufnagel exemplifies the dedication of the ELC’s teachers. Lorraine has been involved in preschool education for more than 15 years and with the ELC for four. Carly is clearly a fan. “Lorraine is thirsty for knowledge and for improving herself, even though she has so much experience and skills. She’s always up to better herself, increase her knowledge, and apply it in the classroom. Everything is meaningful, intentional, and purposeful. Her work with social-emotional development is noticeable in the children. Those skills are necessary for children to learn.”

 “We have autonomy based on the children we have in the classroom. In emergent curriculum, you work with the children and where they want to explore,” says Lorraine. “We are looking for ways to increase their learning in multiple domains and have them excited and invested in what they are doing. It’s an exploration and we are exploring with them.”

With latitude comes creativity. Lorraine initiated the ELC’s Reduce and Recycle program. The children tend to the ELC garden and learn how to grow, use, and cook what is produced. The process encompasses science, math, measuring, and trying new foods. This September, Lorraine expanded the program to include a compost pile.

Healthy living is a dear topic for Lorraine. “The Y is about healthy perspective –whole body includes eating healthy. The ELC provides healthy snacks. It’s wonderful what we are able to provide children here and help children expand their palates – carrots, hummus, blueberries, apples.”

Looking Ahead: From Boardroom to Classroom

“The Early Learning Center is central to everything our YMCA stands for today,” says Shahryar Oveissi, Chairman of the YMCA Board. “Youth development is a pillar of our mission and we continue to assemble a team of experts and leaders who are passionate about eliminating the achievement gap in our community.  Our commitment to these children is as strong now as it was 30 years ago when the ELC opened.  We have seen incredible results in our students’ development and hope to expand the reach of our program within our community.” 

The ELC programs are designed to work in sync. The goal is to have a child enter the infant/toddler program, engage in preschool, and continue through one of the afterschool programs.

“It’s humbling to be here,” says Lorraine. “There’s so much that’s going on. By the time they graduate, everyone loves these children and is invested in them. Our hearts spill over at graduation. We know we have prepared them well and that they are ready to continue on with the exploration that we’ve started.”