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SWAG To Create Child Care and Early Education Center

The Southwest Advocacy Group’s latest efforts are directed toward those in diapers.

The C.H.I.L.D Center, which stands for the Children’s Health, Imagination, Learning and Discovery Center, will serve as a child care and early education center located in the heart of the SWAG neighborhoods.

Set to open for the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, the new facility is intended to enhance the early education, health and quality of life for young children from birth to age 5, an age that is critically important to a child’s development, said Dorothy Benson, co-chair of SWAG.

“You can’t wait till children are in kindergarten because a majority of brain development is from birth to five,” she said. “They hit kindergarten and they aren’t ready and then they start behind and they never catch up. And that’s a big problem.”

The center will provide comprehensive child care and an early education curriculum, in addition to creative play and nutritious meals, Benson said. SWAG is partnering with the University of Florida’s Baby Gator Child Development and Research Center to help operate the center, and with the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies for its contribution of evidence-based knowledge about policy and practices in early childhood studies.

Patricia Snyder, Ph.D., director of the Anita Zucker Center, said the importance of investing during a child’s earliest years is crucial for sending them on a positive trajectory, especially since there are only about 1,825 days between the time when a child is born and when they go to kindergarten.

“We know that 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life and so we want to take advantage of that critical period of development and learning for young children,” Snyder said. “Everything from brain science to behavioral science tells us that the first five years of life are critically important years in a young child’s life.”

Moreover, the C.H.I.L.D. Center will provide parents direct programming for caregivers on topics like parenting, security and nutrition, and offer family support sessions in order to better support the development and learning of their young children.

Dorothy Thomas, co-chair of SWAG, said these programs will hopefully empower parents and caregivers to be their children’s first teacher. Not all parents know what the best practices for children might be, so providing guidance and support for them as well is just as important as for the children, she said.

“It’s one thing to send a kid to school every day and get some education, but what’s really important is that they look at their mom and their dad and have a relationship…that helps build them up and provide that same sort of care and nurturing and positive learning experience from their actual family,” she said. “That’s way more important than any care or service that somebody else can provide.”

In addition, the C.H.I.L.D. Center will act as a model demonstration center for the field of early childhood care and education. This means that child care providers from all over the county can come to learn the best practices of how to better educate children from the experts working at the facility, Thomas said.

“That type of impact is going to be felt county wide by who knows how many people,” she said. “If we are better training early learning providers throughout the county by what we are doing at the C.H.I.L.D. Center, then the ripple effect is going to be huge.”

The facility’s location is set for a lot just down the street from the SWAG Family Resource Center and the Southwest Health Clinic. According to data collected over the years, this is an area that is a desert for quality early learning centers, Snyder said.

It is this lack of access to early learning that is resulting in large achievement gaps between the children of the SWAG communities and the neighboring wealthier subdivisions, like Haile Plantation, said Joan Canton, vice-chair of SWAG and a resident in the SWAG community.

“The three elementary schools that the kids in these areas are fed to are very high performing schools and it helps the larger community keep their schools high performing if the children from the poorer communities come in there and are on the same level with their kids,” Canton said.

As a result, the major goal of this C.H.I.L.D Center is to minimize this learning gap, Benson said.

“We have big achievement gaps and our hope is to close those achievement gaps,” she said. “To truly go from cradle to career, you have to start serving where the biggest gap is and that’s definitely prenatal to 5.”

Brittany Valencic is a reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached at brittanyv724@gmail.com or 352-392-6397 or 352-392-NEWS. Follow her at @itssbritttany.