Laurel Learning Center (LLC), established by Cornerstones almost 40 years ago to offer low-income and homeless parents an enriching childcare and learning environment for their children, can proudly boast a number of accomplishments year after year: 14 out of 15 preschool children are kindergarten ready when it comes time to enroll in school; 50 students in its pre- and afterschool programs are able to maintain and often improve their grades; the parents can see in their children’s bright faces the solid foundation in life that the holistic care and teaching methods provided by LLC staff bring; it can even show how many students, who have outgrown the center, still feel connected to it; as if it were an extension of their own family.
Makenzy O’Flynn will attest to that. Once a young student at LLC, Makenzy’s life has brought her full-circle back to the place where her educational nurturing began and where she now has chosen to teach.
Enrolled at LLC as a preschooler, Makenzy has vivid and happy memories of her days under the care of Ms. Kathleen, her teacher. Photos from that time are still kept at LLC and Makenzy enjoys looking through the albums with her own son who comes to the pre- and after-school program. Makenzy’s family moved away from Reston when she was in first grade; however, some weekends and during school vacations, Makenzy came back to Reston to visit her grandparents. When her aunt became director of the LLC, she found herself stopping by to see old teachers and helping out where she could.
Though Makenzy actually went to college to study English, with a minor in French, she felt compelled to work with children. Makenzy looked for childcare experience interning at afterschool programs in public schools and other day-care centers before joining the team at LLC in the toddler and then School-age Program. When a pre-school teacher vacancy came up, Makenzy got her Child Development Associate certificate and applied for the job. She got it. She has been with the team for ten years now, and has been lead teacher for the past five years!
What is it about Learning Learning Center that appeals so much to Makenzy? It is the emphasis on “striving to be better than the standard”. Makenzy loves how LLC makes it a priority to train and support teachers in their quest to be the best teachers they can be. One such way is through the Teachstone program, an initiative of Fairfax County and the University of Virginia which, through mentorship and self-analysis, enables teachers to identify ways to enhance their teaching methods in a constructive manner.
“Laurel is like a family,” says Makenzy with great enthusiasm. “Teachers are super-committed in the lives of the children. We don’t have staff turnover like many other childcare centers; people are here for 10, 30 years…teachers love their kids. We see students come back and visit…some even come back to volunteer. The place is just filled with love.”
And Makenzy is a key to making LLC such a wonderful learning environment. She is “an amazing teacher with boundless energy. She connects with the kids and develops week-long, immersive, and fun lessons focused on stuff like building race cars, exploring science, studying butterflies and symmetry, and exploring theater, stage and movies. Quite honestly, we worship the ground she walks on in our family.” (Parent of preschool child, 2015)
The knowledge that many children at LLC come from low-income households with very limited resources to invest in education and childcare, is a motivational factor for Makenzy, too. To break the cycle of poverty, disadvantaged children, particularly preschoolers, need to be exposed to the best methods in teaching and positive reinforcement so they can enter school ready for the challenges ahead and continue to succeed in school and improve their career outcomes. As part of Virginia’s Pre-school Initiative, LLC teachers like Makenzy have access to an abundance of resources that help them support their students collectively and individually, tailoring their approach creatively to meet the specific needs of the children in their care.
How creative can a teacher be at Laurel Learning Center? The sky’s the limit…or should that be the shore? When a preschool teacher wanted to do a learning module on the seaside, she decided the only way she could do that effectively was to bring the beach inside! Transforming her entire classroom into a beach front, the teacher brought in sand that covered a third of the classroom. She then added seashells, buckets, shovels, netting, rubber crabs, dolphins, and sharks. Not to forget the sea, she also brought in a small wading pool, to the utter delight of all her preschoolers. For three weeks, the children lay on the “beach” and read books about the sea, sea life, and places on the earth that are on beaches. Everyone loved the “outside-inside” project…except, of course, the cleaning crew!