Starting with a good foundation

Stratford Early Learning Center offers day care, preschool to area families

STRATFORD – It’s a busy, active place in the two-year-old room at the Early Learning Center in Stratford on this recent winter day.

In the cheerful, bright room well stocked with toys and other baby equipment, nap time is over for five little boys. Several two-year-old girls still nap in cribs in the other end of the room, oblivious to any commotion the boys make as they play.

It’s just another weekday afternoon at the day care center that’s been a fixture on the school grounds for twenty years now. Before that, the facility was housed in several other locations in the school building and in town. The building was enlarged due to demand in 2013.

That was the same year Catherine Bergman became the new director of the Early Learning Center, a day care facility that’s licensed for up to 41 youngsters age infant on up. There is also a preschool for three-year-olds in the building.

Being on staff for that long, it’s no surprise for Bergman to say, “these kids feel like family to me now” as she rocks young Henry while he wakes up from his afternoon nap. A native of Stratford and the mother of two young girls, Bergman holds a B.A. in early childhood development and education from UNI and took the job after nearly twenty years as director of Hamilton County SEED.

“I wanted to be able to have a better schedule for my family,” Bergman said about her career change. “At SEED I wanted to make a difference, too, but I feel like I am really making a difference here.”

The Early Leaning Center, which also offers three-year-old preschool, is making a difference by meeting a need for local, quality day care.

According to Bergman, the families who use the center all live in Stratford or the surrounding area. “There are other families who would like to be here, but we just don’t have enough staff,” she stated, adding that staff live in several communities surrounding Stratford. Most days there are six staff on the job, with four others available. Not all children come every day on a regular basis, so numbers required for staff fluctuates, she explained.

The day care center and preschool are operated by the school, so Bergman reports to the school board and superintendent. The school kitchen prepares the food for the day care center and preschool, and the school office handles billing to families.

“Having this center is good for school enrollment,” Bergman stated. The facility is licensed by the Department of Human Services, which requires that files are kept on each child and every employee. There are also standards that have to be met for the breakfast, lunch, and snacks served there daily. And, yes, Bergman said there is always plenty of paperwork to do.

Josh Culberson, principal at the Stratford school, agrees that having that Early Learning Center is beneficial the district. “It’s a valuable resource for families living in our community,” he stated. “It draws families into our community who weren’t necessarily looking to move here. It gets them into our school district.

“Having before-school and after-school care is a plus for many families, too,” added Culberson, in his third year as principal.

What makes a good day care center? “The staff has to be committed to it. We have a good rating on the state system, and we can’t maintain that unless the staff is into what we’re doing,” Bergman answered. “People here care enough and have a good work attitude.”

That’s a good thing, because days are long at the Early Learning Center. It opens at 6 a.m. five days a week, youngsters start arriving at 6:15, with most of the children arriving by 9:00 a.m. The days offer plenty of play time, reading and crafts, in addition to meals, snacks, and naps. According to Bergman, the average attendance currently is 25. Licensed for 41, the center hits the maximum in the summers with school-age children attending.

Having their children attend a day care center is a fact of life in today’s economy when generally both parents work outside the home. There are advantages for the children, Bergman pointed out. “I think because of the changes in our educational system, expectations are higher now.

“And there’s a developmental advantage to being I day care. We’re always talking to them, so their language skills are developing. We’re teaching things in a play environment,” she went on. “And we’re laying the groundwork for socialization.”

There’s one philosophy that says that the best way to learn something is to teach it. So what does this teacher learn from her young students?

As another little boy climbs into the rocking chair with Bergman and gets settled on her lap, she reflects. “How to enjoy the little things,” she answers. “they just brighten our day, and you forget about stress.

“It’s exhausting but fulfilling at the same time,” she said with a smile.