Providence Forge preschool earns award for excellence
Since 1975, Sunshine Nursery School has operated within Providence Forge Presbyterian Church. The preschool for three- and four-year-olds has gone on relatively unnoticed outside of the New Kent-Charles City area. That is, until now.
Church officials learned in mid-January their nursery school has drawn national acclaim by winning the Sarah Hill Brown Award for Excellence in Early Childhood Education. The award is one of five presented annually by Richmond-based Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education.
All Presbyterian churches in the United States are eligible. Providence Forge is sharing its award — named after the late educator Sarah Hill Brown who opened an ecumenical childcare center in Richmond — with a Maryland church.
Applicants are judged on a preschool program’s effectiveness, moral and monetary support for the program, teachers’ skill and devotion, racial and cultural inclusiveness, recognition by peers, and innovation on the part of the program’s services for children and families.
Providence Forge’s pastor, the Rev. Steve Hodges, encouraged Sunshine Nursery School director Cathy Davis to apply for the award. Davis submitted a required letter of recommendation from a parent, Marcia Gardy, whose daughter graduated last year from the school. Davis then assembled a booklet of photos that detailed monthly activities at the school, which meets Tuesday-Thursday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. each week from September through May, and included a letter describing the program.
“It’s nice,” Davis said about winning the award. “I’ve never won anything in my life. It makes me feel like I’ve done something worthwhile in my life.”
Davis has been involved with the preschool for the past 15 years. In addition to serving as director, she teaches the class for three-year-olds. Sherry Mills, a 13-year veteran with the program, instructs the four-year-olds. The program employs two assistants, Debbie Richards and Terri Helt.
“We’re all moms,” Davis said. “We treat the kids like they’re our own children.”
Little in the program’s basic offerings has changed since the school’s early years, Davis said.
“We’ve just built on what was started in 1975,” she said. “We just add on and improve where we can. The basic program has been the same all these years, and that’s to create a Christian environment mostly with social activities but we do incorporate some academics.”
Enrollment increased two years ago from 24 to 30 children. And even though the preschool does not solicit or advertise, word has spread among parents who eagerly seek placement for their kids.
“Because New Kent is growing so fast, we’ve got a waiting list and I’ve been turning people away,” Davis said. “I hate turning people away. That’s one reason why enrollment was increased to 30. I guess we could have 40, but the space is not here although the church is talking about expanding.”
The preschool’s 2009 and 2010 sessions already have a dozen or more children signed up, she said. And just recently, she registered the first baby for the 2011 class.
Children who graduated during the preschool’s early years are now parents who are anxious to get their own children enrolled. For example, current District 1 Board of Supervisors member Thomas Evelyn graduated in 1983. His son, Clayton, is a 2007 graduate.
Typical days at the preschool start with an hour of free play followed by group activities. Around 10:30 a.m., academic activities begin and usually center on the alphabet letter of the week. This week it’s the letter “O” and the kids will complete worksheets about the letter and have a Thursday show-and-tell session.
Two field trips per year, one to Pumpkinville and the other to Windy Oak Farm, are planned, plus there are occasional special programs. This week, Ocean Encounters is visiting to acquaint kids with life in the seas.
Lunch, meanwhile, is followed by music time and outdoor play, weather permitting. And since the program is Christian-based, Wednesdays include a worship session with the pastor.
“It’s up front with parents that they know the kids interact with me and we have a brief worship service on Wednesdays,” Hodges said.
“Right from the get-go parents know what kind of nursery program we have,” he said.
And the parents are the impetus behind the preschool’s success, Davis added.
“We couldn’t do this without the parents,” she said. “They’re big supporters for us and help us out.”
Sunshine’s popularity, she believes, results from preschools being difficult to find since today’s emphasis appears to be placed on day care alone.
“Mainly, we try to get the children social and able to interact with other children,” she said. “We also get them to sit and listen, and basically get them ready for kindergarten.”