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story.lead_photo.caption Candice Sisemore (left), owner and lead preschool teacher, and Melissa Graham, director, speak Thursday in the preschool classroom at Teeny Tiny Preschool in Fayetteville. Classes return today from the Christmas break at the school that opened in October. The program for children 18 months to 5 years old moved into the former Willow Heights community building at 10 S. Willow Ave. - Photo by David Gottschalk

FAYETTEVILLE -- A new preschool wants to provide unique learning opportunities for children on the south side of town and be a part of the public housing complex from which it operates.

Photo by David Gottschalk
The west facing side of the Teeny Tiny Preschool in Fayetteville as seen Thursday.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Cassie Stanley, lead after-school teacher, is reflected in a mirror above a child-level sink as she speaks Thursday in the preschool classroom at Teeny Tiny Preschool in Fayetteville.

Teeny Tiny Preschool opened its doors in October and returns from winter break Monday. The project-based learning program for children 18 months to 5 years old moved into the Willow Heights community building at 10 S. Willow Ave.

Reggio Emilia approach

Developed after World War II by psychologist Loris Malaguzzi, the pedagogy lets children express themselves through painting, sculpting, acting and other self-guided methods. The name is derived from a city in Italy known for its innovative, city-run early childhood education system. The idea hit United States mainstream in 2002 after the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance was formed.

Teeny Tiny Preschool plans to turn its playground into a rain garden, have a compost site and wants to open an outdoor classroom in line with this philosophy.

Source: Staff report

Prism Education Center occupied the building from 2013 until May and previously was Willow Heights Head Start. Teeny Tiny Preschool signed a one-year lease in August to pay $900 per month to the city Housing Authority.

The future of the complex is up in the air. The Housing Authority is under contract to sell it to a private developer and move residents to Morgan Manor, about a mile south at 324 E. 12th Place.

The move has been mired in controversy. Housing Authority officials said Willow Heights is in disrepair and waning federal money forced their hand. Critics questioned the decision to move residents rather than improve the site. The authority last year did not receive a tax credit it applied for as a major source of funding to expand Morgan Manor and have room for more residents.

The preschool's future, however, looks bright. Its 18 spots filled up and there's a waiting list for 14 more, founder Candice Sisemore said.

Enrolling children in the Reggio Emilia inspired program isn't free, like Head Start. Full-time tuition can run up to $600 a month at the for-profit daycare.

Sisemore said she's aware the people who live in public housing right in the backyard aren't likely to sign up. That's why the school has a scholarship program that Sisemore hopes to expand.

"We really want to be a solution for everything that's happening at Willow Heights," she said. "We can have clothing swaps, we can offer scholarships, free after-school classes -- just things that benefit the community."

The timing turned out perfectly for Cassie Stanley and her three children, Kinsley and Kayson, both 18 months, and Annmarie, 5. Stanley has lived at Willow Heights since 2016 and after her two babies came out of the neonatal intensive care unit she wasn't sure what to do.

Stanley needed a place for her children during the day. She walked over to the building one day and not only received scholarships for her three children to attend but a job for herself as well.

Stanley had previously worked in early childhood education. Teeny Tiny Preschool needed help and was in a position to dole out a few scholarships.

"I feel like this is exactly where I'm supposed to be," she said.

Michelle Wynn, co-director of Child Care Aware of Northwest Arkansas, said she knew of at least one other Reggio Emilia program in the two-county region. Child Care Aware provides information and resources to child care providers and parents.

There is no one correct method in early childhood education, Wynn said.

"It's not just about who has openings and prices," she said. "It has to be a place that you feel comfortable putting your child in and also the training that the staff has too."

Deniece Honeycutt, director of early care and education projects at the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said project-based learning projects such as Reggio Emilia are well-respected in the field.

"The teacher really has to plan very intentionally," she said. "You take the lead from the children -- what they want to do and how they want to do it. And as with any program, you would assess your children as you go."

Vlad Tatter, who is under contract to buy Willow Heights, said the preschool is not going anywhere and praised its leadership. Tatter has said he hopes to build single-family homes on the land.

"We would try to build to suit," he said. "This neighborhood needs the school."

The school has just more than a handful of employees. Its director, Melissa Graham, had her education training in India and taught dyslexic children in Austin, Texas, for five years.

Graham has spent her time doing a little bit of everything, from getting the school's paperwork in order and becoming intimately familiar with Arkansas Department of Human Services regulations to taking out the trash and making snacks.

The preschool's approach, and the Reggio Emilia pedagogy in general, treats children as the tiny humans they are, Graham said. Discipline is learned rather than enforced.

"I think beyond the philosophies and beyond all of the theories and even the brain development, I think there's a sense of respect and kindness toward children," she said.

NW News on 01/08/2018

Print Headline: Preschool seeks to open young minds

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