Sheets of construction paper receive a healthy dose of glue as chatter, laughs, and occasional shouts fill the classroom at Winter Park Day Nursery. While aspiring young artists create the morning’s art project, instructors and assistants continue a tradition that dates back to 1939.
Winter Park Day Nursery was founded during a time when mothers, working at the local citrus packing plant, would need their elementary school-age children to miss classes in order to care for their preschool-age siblings. Elementary school principal, Dr. Nelson Glass, worked with a local church group to create the day school as a means of getting older children back to class and providing younger children with daycare and an educational foundation.
Since then, the school has fulfilled its mission of providing “a secure, nurturing, and educational environment that is affordable and supports family diversity.”
“Children are ultimately innocent, and they are all loving at heart,” Winter Park Day Nursery Executive Director Ali DeMaria told the32789. “Patience and support that allows them to play and learn and feel safe are the best things we can provide for them.”
Classes are divided into age levels starting with an infant class for children ages 6-weeks to 12-months. A toddler class accommodates 1-2-year-olds who move on to classes for 2-3-year-olds, then 3-4-year-olds before starting pre-K for ages 4-5 years. According to DeMaria, many students are facing behavioral challenges stemming from the isolation and disrupted routines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some of those stem from developmental delays,” she said. While many can be remedied with therapy, some require evaluation and diagnosis. This creates another challenge; connecting students to providers with the capacity to take on more clients.
“Wait lists for developmental evaluations are typically more than six months long,” said DeMaria. “So, we have to do what we can with what we know, and with the support of the families to best meet each child’s needs while we wait for evaluations or services to be available.”
The challenges have prompted measures to support not only the students but the teachers as well.
“Behavior challenges with students is also a large component of teacher burnout and turnover. We have reduced the number of students enrolled in two of our classrooms while hiring enough teachers to have a third in most, if not all, classrooms as often as possible.”
Winter Park Day Nursery owes its success to its relationships with the families of the children it serves. The school offers assistance beyond childcare through a Family Services component that includes a clothing closet and food pantry.
“If families need anything, they can either make a donation or pay,” said DeMaria. “No paperwork is necessary, and families can take what they need.”
In addition to fresh produce and canned items, the food pantry offers “super suppers” – a precooked meal that feeds one adult and two children at a cost of $7. “Our kitchen manager makes them twice a month,” DeMaria said. “Families can take them home to reheat, so they don’t have to worry about cooking that night or going to the grocery store.”
Family Services also offers a crisis fund to assist families with sudden financial hardships that can range from healthcare services not covered by insurance to assistance with household expenses if a parent loses a job. “Whatever helps them through that situation, so the child doesn’t miss school, or the adult doesn’t miss work,” said DeMaria. “The goal is to help families move forward.”
The means to fund Winter Park Day Nursery programs must go beyond tuition fees. Support comes from government funds, private donors that include the school’s Butterfly Society, and corporate donors and community partners like Heart of Florida United Way and Central Florida Foundation.
Winter Park’s popular Cows ‘n Cabs benefit is another source of assistance. The yearly restaurant and beverage industry event, founded by 4R Restaurant Group CEO John Rivers and ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Vice President Dave Larue, donates 100% of its proceeds to Central Florida charities that support children.
One need that local partners can’t assist with is staffing. DeMaria has been a fierce advocate for the childcare industry and contributed a 2022 guest column for The Orlando Sentinel that stressed the importance of supporting organizations that are part of it.
“Early childhood education is historically a low-wage industry,” she said. “In March of last year, our board voted to significantly increase wages to $15.60 an hour, and it increases from there based on education and certifications.” However, the requirements of childcare make finding qualified candidates a difficult task.
“People can find a job making the same amount or more working from home or at a very low stress job,” she added. “Working with 16 3-year-olds can be exhausting. It takes someone who has a passion.”
As construction paper is decorated with feathers, beads, and keywords like family, friendship and love, the positive and productive atmosphere is much stronger than the glue that covers the pages, part of the table, and several small fingers. “It can be a handful, but it’s all worth it,” said DeMaria.
For more information on enrollment, programs, and ways to support, visit winterparkdaynursery.org.