FORT LAUDERDALE — “Our shoes tied? Check your shoes,” teacher Shirley Williams calls to the Wonderful Wobblers, one-year-olds at the Jack & Jill Children’s Center in Fort Lauderdale, as they head outside to play.
One of them, Joshua, learns to maneuver a tricycle.
“Push, Joshua,” Williams encourages. “Very good.”
It’s the same kind of support Williams is getting as a student.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children will require teachers to have associate degrees in early childhood education by 2012, and bachelor’s degrees by 2020. A dozen at a time, Jack & Jill teachers are studying for their associate degrees at Broward College.
“We have nine classrooms,” said Shannon Prohaszka, Jack & Jill’s executive director. “The goal is that all nine are led by bachelor-eligible teachers.” The center has 26 teachers.
In 1942, the Junior League of Fort Lauderdale created Jack & Jill for the children of mothers whose husbands were fighting in World War II.
Today, the center serves about 170 children from birth to age five. Single mothers head 95 percent of the families. The center features parent education and family support programs, a library, scholarships for parents attending school, a computer center and a food and clothing bank. Most classrooms include at least three teachers and a grandparent.
“Miss Shannon’s vision is that each and every one of her staff is going to be successful,” said Broward
College teacher Joy Vaughan-Brown. “She runs a tight ship. Every single student that she’s sent to my class has made it through.”
Deborah Cooper, who works with two-year-olds, was the first teacher to enter the college program, in 2007.
“I had never really followed through, and [Prohaszka] asked me if I wanted to…and get everyone motivated,” recalled Cooper, who expects to graduate next year. “I said OK.”
Art appreciation is her favorite class.
“Some things that I just took for granted,” she said. “I had been going to the park and I had been seeing the art on the walls. Our first exercise was about public art.”
Cooper, who graduated from high school in 1972, incorporates what she learns.
“We’ll study a unit that might pique my interest, and I’ll try to bring it back to the children,” she said.
Jack & Jill Senior Program Assistant Toni Reed, the mother of four, also returned to college.
“Because my kids were small at the time, I had to stop because it was hard for me,” she said. “It’s been taking a couple of years, but I’m glad I’m back in school.”
Reed has a grandchild at Jack & Jill and a child at Broward College.
“Now that my children are older, it’s much easier for me,” she said. “I have the support of my family.”
Most teachers take classes in Fort Lauderdale, close to Jack & Jill and their homes.
“We try to sign up for the same classes,” Reed said. “We try to take classes together, so we help each other out that way….It’s fun when you have someone you know in the class with you.”
Studying with family members in the house can be challenging.
“It’s hard to study,” said teacher Lantigela Jones. “But I learned…that you’ve got to have at least two hours to study. You can’t study a half hour before a test. It doesn’t work.”
Courses include Vaughan-Brown’s “Student Life Skills.”
Cindy Thuma, Broward College communications coordinator, said the class is for those who have not been in a college classroom recently – or at all.
“Joy’s teaching them how to be learners again, because they kind of get away from it,” Thuma said.
Topics include time and money management.
“They come in and tell me…’I’m doing all right, and I’m still sticking with it,’” said Doris Butler, who works at Broward College’s Fort Lauderdale campus. “They’re sticking with it, because they’re encouraged by it.”
Jack & Jill teacher Yvette Pierre, who works with four- and five-year-olds, has other activities besides her studies. She gave birth to a girl Feb. 1, and has three other children.
“I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this one?’ she asked. “I’m going to be busy. But I’ve got to finish.”
She and her colleagues use Jack & Jill’s computers to write assignments, and Reed helps with financial aid and registration.
They also hear encouraging words.
“When they come through the door, I always tell them, ‘You made the first step,’” Butler said.
Just like their students.
Williams compared herself to little Joshua.
“He works with what he’s got,” she said.
For more information about Jack & Jill Children’s Center, call 954-463-8772 or visit jackandjillcenter.org. For more information about Broward College, call 954-201-7350 or visit www.broward.edu.