Each day is unpredictable and always changing. Nothing less should be expected when you are responsible for preparing the next generation of kindergartners.

Penny Mansell is the director of the Child and Parent Development Center on the campus of Mississippi University for Women. Ten hour days are common. She often doesn’t leave until well past the closing time of 5:30 p.m.

She prepares curriculum and classroom needs. Sometimes she tackles the daily challenge, like searching for a washer and dryer because the previous appliances didn’t survive the day. But, just when the day seems to be too much, she visits a classroom to receive snuggles and cuddles. All is better once again.

“The best thing about our kids is they are so loving and kind. That’s the most worthwhile part of our job,” said Mansell.

For Mansell and CPDC, the mission is long term–building a foundation for health and development that translates to success in school, employment and life.

CPDC HISTORY

The W has a long history of early childhood services that started in 1929 as the region’s first Early Childhood Education Program and Laboratory School known as the Eckford Nursery School.

A five-year Appalachian Regional Commission grant formed the region’s first childcare center that specifically supported low-income, at-risk young families and included parent education. The center was known as the Center for Infants and Parents (1974). The university piloted the state’s Kindergarten program (1976) as part of The Center for Preschoolers and Parents and The Parent’s Cooperative Kindergarten.

In 1984, The Center for Gifted and Talented Children, the area’s first afterschool program for first through third grade, was established. That same year, all programs were merged to form the Child and Parent Development Center (CPDC).

In 2017, CPDC was designated as a treatment center with Mississippi Building Blocks. The center received new curriculum and high-quality training focused on the Mississippi Department of Education’s Early Learning Standards and current best practices. The program modernized CPDC and re-established the center as a premier child care provider. Also in 2017, CPDC’s preschool lead teachers and director completed the Mississippi Early Childhood Inclusion Center Special Needs Preschool Credential.

“CPDC has always served as an inclusive environment for all children. In the past several years, we have seen an increase of children with special and unique needs who needed a preschool home. Some of these new friends have autism, developmental delays, communication or behavior challenges that made it more difficult for them to thrive in other childcare centers,” said Mansell.

“It was important for us to be as educated as possible so we could meet the needs and support all of our children and their families. What we’ve found that when we build on the skills of communication and connection, you are building on the skills that you need to help all children succeed.”

CPDC continues to provide children with early numeracy and reading readiness skills, including the Renaissance STAR assessment. In 2019, PreK4 students scored an average of 604.5 before starting Kindergarten. The Mississippi Department of Education would like students to score a minimum of 530. All of CPDC students have surpassed that goal since 2017.

Despite the obstacles of 2020, CPDC continues to lead the way. Toddler lead teachers and Mansell completed the Infant and Toddler Special Needs Preschool Credential. CPDC was also selected as the 2020 Center of the Year by The Mississippi Early Childhood Inclusion Center highlighting the center’s commitment to an inclusive and welcoming community of friends.

Preschoolers at CPDC receive Americorps Jumpstart services, which deliver literacy and pre-kindergarten skills through a mentorship-based program. All of the classrooms receive free music therapy or individual music therapy through a partnership with The W’s music therapy program. Traditionally CPDC students also have low to no-cost services with the Speech-Language Pathology program at The W.

“I think our greatest strength comes from the magic of being on this university campus. The partnerships that we have with our student body and academic departments mean that our children get an amazing preschool experience with more opportunities than a traditional childcare center can allow,” said Mansell. “This fall we even had a student-athlete serving as a coach to encourage gross motor development during outside playtime. We have better adult-to-child ratios, highquality teachers and a constant stream of enthusiastic students to bring in new ideas and developmentally appropriate practices.”

GRANTS AND SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY

In October 2020, CPDC received $145,606 from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Grant fund. Priority 1 of GEER funding covers essential emergency educational services specifically for the early care and education of very young children ages 0-5.

“The bulk of our families were hit hard by the pandemic. They were out of work and unpaid and they are still catching up. Then their lower-cost provider didn’t re-open when they went back to work, so they had to make hard choices to switch caregivers. We were able to help them as a Child Care Assistance in Response Plan (CCAIR) site with their first 90 days of childcare fully paid and now we have GEER to cover the next 90,” said Mansell, CPDC director.

CPDC had many families that were covered for 90 days by the Mississippi CCAIR from the Mississippi Department of Human Services. As the emergency coverage for families expired, Mansell was concerned about how low-income and at-risk families would handle switching back to paying for childcare.

“All of our CPDC families had at least one member of their household that was essential. We surveyed our families and realized that all our families had lost childcare due to mandatory shutdowns and were at risk if there were additional childcare closures,” Mansell added.

GEER will cover all tuition and CPDC fees for families that accept the GEER-based seat for approximately four months. This means on average CPDC families can save around $2,500 per child. The remainder of the funds will cover materials to improve the quality of care and education offered by CPDC.

The Priority 2 of GEER funding of $62,480 will allow the CPDC to offer the trauma-informed and evidencebased conscious discipline training and receive materials to distribute to interested parents in the Columbus- Lowndes community. The grant will also fund conscious discipline and calm-down materials for early childhood classrooms that complete the 10-course online training.

“Conscious Discipline focuses on making connections and teaches us how to work through stress and big emotions. These skills are extremely important for our kids, parents and caregivers as we navigate the stress and trauma of the pandemic,” said Melinda Lowe, director of Outreach & Innovation and coordinator of education.

The GEER grant will provide iPads, computers, specific curriculum education training for lead teaching staff and education interns at CPDC. The grant was written and will be managed with the assistance of Lowe. “We are excited to be able to help and serve our CPDC families during the pandemic.”

In early 2021, The Phil Hardin Foundation awarded $300,000 for the creation of the Phil Hardin Innovative Learning Lab (PHILL). The laboratory will create a Collaboratory for The W’s teacher candidates and community educators to work together to create and innovative hands-on teaching strategies. The new area will allow participants to embrace creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration though best practices, educational technology and brain compatible learning strategies all within a flexible classroom environment.

“The goal of PHILL is to create an equitable place-based educational experience that will improve student achievement and enhance teacher effectiveness. This can be accomplished by providing unique spaces that will foster the practice of differentiated instruction, data-driven instruction, higher-order feedback, problem-based learning, small group instruction and relationship-building,” said Lowe.

EVERYTHING IN PLACE

Whether through pandemic or the daily challenges, Mansell is watching the next generation grow. She is excited about the students and the center.

Mansell said, “I feel like now we’re at a place where we’ve got the right people. We’ve got the right tools. We’ve got the right everything. We’ve got everything in place that we need.”

While names and structure have changed, one thing has remained constant over the past 90-years–serving children and families.

“No matter how the philosophies in education change, meeting the unique and appropriate needs of the children first, while being supportive and engaging to families, is always going to produce the strongest early foundation. Our main job is to be their first exposure to education and cultivate a lifelong love of learning,” said Mansell.

For Mansell, her passion is to see CPDC to continue to grow and be able to support more children and families in the area. CPDC continues to keep an extensive waitlist and would love to serve more children and families, especially low-income families with young children.

Mansell said, “We want early childhood to stay in the forefront as a priority and encourage others to invest efforts and energy into supporting the birth-8, high-quality movement. We firmly believe that a quality early childhood experience is important to building a foundation for lifelong learning and success in school and life.”