Urbana Early Childhood School: A 'better' environment for learning

Urbana Early Childhood School: A 'better' environment for learning

URBANA — Students and staff members at Urbana Early Childhood School are settling in at their new building.

The school, which is attached to Prairie Elementary, opened this fall.

Principal Cris Vowels said the school is designed especially for preschoolers, and staff members like it for that reason.

The school serves 360 children, half in the morning, half in the afternoon. Each classroom includes 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, both with special needs and without, as well as a teacher and one or two teaching assistants.

About 50 of the school's students are Spanish speakers, Vowels said, and that's just one of the 12 different languages spoken at the school.

The school district budgeted about $11.8 million to build the school. It's being paid for partially with money from bonds the district sold, to be repaid with money from the school facilities sales tax.

The school provides a learning environment where teachers can teach without having to worry about troubleshooting technological issues, Vowels said.

Staff members "can do their jobs so much more efficiently," she said.

In the program's old building, the Washington Early Childhood School, teachers might have to unplug their computers before using a tape recorder or turning on their window air-conditioning unit.

That building, which was built in 1926, was on three levels and also had unreliable wireless Internet access. The temperature wasn't consistent throughout the building either, Vowels said.

The new building has a geothermal heating and cooling system. It's on a single level, which makes it accessible for students who use walkers or wheelchairs, as well as for their families.

Large windows flood many areas with natural light, with several that are installed low to the ground so students can easily look outside. It was designed with energy efficiency in mind and shares access to a new gym at Prairie Elementary.

That area — which also includes the early childhood school's gym, kitchen, library and meeting room — has controlled access so it can be opened up for community use during the evenings, while classrooms and school offices are still secure.

The new school's classrooms are organized into groups of what Vowels calls villages: the blue village, the red village and the purple village.

Each village groups together classrooms for teachers who teach using a team concept, she said.

Each village also has space for specialists who work with students in that particular group, including speech therapists and social workers. That way, faculty and staff members have easy access to each other and to students, Vowels said.

Each village has accents of the color it is named after, including in colored bricks in the hallway and outside the building, in paint colors and in floor tiles. The different colors continue on floor tiles throughout the building, which Vowels said has helped direct parents to specific areas.

A staff member will tell them, for example, to follow the red tiles.

The new school also has several spaces the old one didn't. One is a staff lounge, which also doubles as a workroom and houses materials all teachers share.

Vowels said she notices teachers eating together and sharing ideas. In their old building, they ate in their classrooms.

"It's just a better working environment," Vowels said, adding that she believes staff morale has improved.

The school also has a teaching kitchen, with a stove, dishwasher and washer and dryer.

"That washer and dryer gets way more use than I ever thought it would," she said.

In it, students can learn about things like measuring and stirring, Vowels said. They might make grilled cheese and cut it into different shapes, to go with a unit about shapes, she said.

A lobby, with cathedral ceilings, furniture and a play area, encourages families to get to know one another, and Vowels said she has noticed people spending time there.

And a special room off the gym allows space for students with special needs to either work with physical or occupational therapists, or spend time with their whole class.

The school also has a meeting room attached to its library, which is for parenting classes at night, as well as staff meetings.

Throughout the building, spaces for kids are designed at short heights. For example, everything in the gym seems small, right down to the low basketball hoops on the walls. Books in the library are on low shelves, and in the classrooms, sinks and drinking fountains for preschoolers can't be more than 2 feet high.

The toilets in the bathrooms are similarly sized.

Vowels said that encourages student safety, but also independence. Students can pick out books for themselves, or get a drink without having to be lifted.

Vowels said those who work at the school are also happy to be so close to Prairie. Many students who attend Urbana Early Childhood live in the neighborhood and will go to elementary school there.

She said her Spanish-speaking staff members are also happy to be able to collaborate with those at Prairie, as it houses one of the school district's dual-language programs.

"There are lots of pluses to being here," she said.

Administrative assistant Sylvia Ortiz said she's noticed that teachers, parents and students are all happier in the new space.

Custodian Chuck Pirtle said he likes the school's "warm, inviting atmosphere" and how "it looks clean after you clean it."

"It's a safe environment for the students," he said.

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