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Ready, Set, Learn!

Author: Beth Galleto
September, 2010 Issue

North Bay Children’s Center in Novato cultivates the minds, feeds the stomachs and nurtures the souls of its young students.

The North Bay Children’s Center (NBCC) is assisting today’s workforce while improving tomorrow’s. Working parents can concentrate better, knowing their children are secure, learning and preparing for their own futures. A visit to the center’s main location at Hamilton Field in Novato demonstrates why.

From outside the fence, NBCC looks like what it is: part of a former military base that’s been recycled for civilian use. Once inside its front gate, however, the school complex divides into a number of classrooms occupied by small groups of children of various age levels. Each classroom has a self-contained playground area with age-appropriate play equipment. The campus centerpiece is the Garden of Eatin’, a hands-on teaching garden in which each class gets time during the day to plant and nurture growing fruits and vegetables, and to pick and sample whatever’s ripe. “We’re training their taste buds to choose fresh fruits and vegetables,” explains David Haskell, the garden’s mastermind and nutrition educator since 2004.
On one spring morning, a class of active pre-kindergartners swirled through the greenery, picking and sampling sugar snap peas and ripe red raspberries. Small groups gathered at containers spaced around the garden, enjoying a bit of water play—dipping out water in measuring cups drilled with holes and dribbling it over their fresh-picked harvest before eating. Instead of straight rows, the garden is designed around a series of circular beds, separated by walkways and only as wide as the children can reach across.

Haskell was first involved in the project as a volunteer member of NBCC’s garden steering committee, in his capacity as director of operations at Slide Ranch (an environmental education program in West Marin). He led a team of Slide Ranch interns in drawing up the original garden located at the Hamilton campus. It’s now his responsibility and joy to design the garden so something is ripe and ready to eat at any time.

Often, the children fill their pockets with fresh beans or chard, smuggle them home and ask their parents to cook them. The kids may think they’re getting away with something, but, in fact, this is exactly what the school’s leaders want them to do.

A healthy start

Susan Gilmore, NBCC’s executive director and founder, was inspired to start the garden program after reading a 2004 report about the childhood obesity epidemic. It stated that, for the first time in history, today’s children are on track to have shorter life spans than their parents due to preventable diseases caused by poor eating habits and inactivity. According to the Center for Disease Control, if things continue as they are, one out of every three children born since 2001 will develop diabetes.

Because NBCC provides breakfast and lunch to its students, Gilmore realized the school was in an ideal position to begin to turn the statistics around. “Childcare programs that serve meals have a unique opportunity to influence what children are eating on a daily basis,” she says.

Since then, as Gilmore and Haskell wrote in an opinion piece printed in the Marin Independent Journal in February, NBCC has been able to demonstrate that, “if young children are immersed within a culture of nurturing health and taught how wonderfully delicious fresh fruit and vegetables taste—they choose to eat healthy. And much to our amazement, our little guys seem to be teaching their parents to eat fresh, too.”

Gilmore and Haskell expressed their delight with First Lady Michelle Obama’s well publicized childhood nutrition project and garden at the White House, calling her “right on target as she shines the spotlight on the need to create systems that support early learning, healthy eating and active living in an effort to move our nation forward in promoting the health and well being of our children.”

The garden environment at NBCC can be experienced by the children with all their senses. Not just for eating, it also includes a native habitat section to attract pollinators like bees and butterflies. The pleasure of being in the garden is complemented by lessons in the classroom. In 2004, unable to find a curriculum model that fully integrated health and nutrition into daily classroom activities for young children, Gilmore worked with Haskell and Garden of Eatin’ nutritionist Christine Berman to design their own (it’s recently received the USDA Seal of Approval).

Produce included in meals the school provides to the children is consistent with produce the children harvest from the garden. State subsidies cover a portion of NBCC’s meal program, but for the meals to exceed the minimal guidelines set by the state, NBCC must raise additional funds through grants and fundraising events.

It took a while for parents and teachers to embrace the school’s food policy, Haskell notes. For example, everyone had to adopt a different attitude toward celebrations. Birthdays now feature fruit, snap peas or yogurt smoothies, not cake. Children drink water—perhaps infused with lemon or other fruits to give it flavor—not soda. Teachers aren’t allowed to bring fast food drinks or lunches for themselves on campus. “We’re aware of what we’re marketing to our children. We’re modeling this culture of health,” says Gilmore.

Gilmore holds a degree in child development and has more than 32 years of experience in that field. Previously a teacher and administrator at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, she left to start what became NBCC in 1986, after recognizing the growing need for full-day, year-round care for children of working parents. She’s served as chair for two consecutive terms on the Marin County Child Care Commission, served on Marin County’s Workforce Investment Board, currently serves as president of the Petaluma Education Foundation, and is a graduate of the Novato, San Rafael and Petaluma Chamber of Commerce leadership programs

A deeper understanding

It’s not just in the garden where NBCC is changing children’s lives. With a strong focus on language and literacy, NBCC works closely with local schools to make sure children make a seamless transition to kindergarten. The Center’s teaching team of more than 60 reflects the cultures of the children served at each site. “More than 50 percent of our teachers are bilingual,” says Gilmore, “which is key to kindergarten readiness for our English language learners.”

The Center’s early literacy curriculum includes the Raising a Reader program, which is designed to encourage parents to read with their children and establish regular reading routines at home. The children bring home red book bags filled with age- and language-appropriate books for parents to read with them, or picture books to use as a starting point for cozy storytelling.

Music and art play a large part in the curriculum as well. “NBCC is fueled by our vision of excellence and spirit of innovation,” says Gilmore. “High-quality teaching is supported by ongoing professional development. In addition to onsite training, we provide opportunities for teachers to continue their education through stipends and reimbursement for college classes. We also ensure our teaching teams have the opportunity to meet on a regular basis.

“This fall, 97 of our preschool graduates will be starting kindergarten fully prepared to learn in their new academic setting,” says Gilmore. These children will be successful “because of their access to a preschool curriculum model that supports family literacy, health and nutrition, and fosters cognitive, physical and social development. Because of NBCC’s early intervention, several of our at-risk students were able to receive the outside services they needed to ensure they, too, are ready for a smooth transition to kindergarten, and support is in place for them to succeed academically.”

The center’s goal is to work in partnership with the community to provide the highest-quality child care to families across the income spectrum, as well as support services that nurture and enhance family life. Its vision is to assure optimal child development through culturally rich programs that prepare children to succeed socially, emotionally and academically.

Filling the need

Responding to increasing need for such programs, NBCC continues to grow. In 1995, thanks to the combined efforts of Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, the city of Novato, the U.S. Navy, the Novato Unified School District and other members of the community, NBCC was the first nonprofit, community-based organization to relocate to the decommissioned Hamilton Air Force Base. Supervisor Cynthia Murray and Congresswoman Woolsey assisted in negotiations with the Navy, enabling the Center to relocate in 1996 (NBCC took title to the property in 2005).

The move to Hamilton allowed the center to expand by adding before and after care for school-aged children in kindergarten through fifth grade. NBCC has recently expanded into Sonoma County, serving an additional 212 children by adding two sites in Petaluma and two in Santa Rosa. All four sites are located on school campuses where 70 percent of the children served are low-income English language learners. Further expansion is in the works. A conceptual design for an updated campus at Hamilton includes LEED-certified, modular construction that will provide greater community access to NBCC’s programs.

“In addition to our existing childcare services, we envision our main campus serving as a training lab for our satellite sites as well as other organizations that are interested in replicating our programs,” says Gilmore. “Our goal is to design a campus that will let us fully integrate health, nutrition and environmental education into our daily classroom curriculum.”

The Center has served more than 1,000 children since its incorporation. It currently serves more than 380 children daily, offering year-round childcare for children of six weeks through 12 years. More than 55 percent receive tuition assistance, which lets parents return to the workforce or continue their own education.

Research has shown that high-quality, early childcare and education is very cost-effective. According to a 2009 study prepared for the Bay Area Leadership Council, “A substantial body of research now shows that investments in high-quality educational experiences during the years from birth to age five significantly improve not only school achievement, but also a range of social and economic outcomes throughout life. In fact, economists have shown that public investments in high-quality early care and education generate a higher rate of return than almost any other public investment.”

The report urges public investment in early childhood education, noting that “reliable and secure care for children while parents are working…allows parents to enter the workforce more easily, work longer hours, earn higher wages, move between jobs less frequently and achieve higher productivity.”

Business plays a role

According to Gilmore, the business community has already responded to this challenge by providing financial and volunteer support for NBCC—but more is needed. Besides directly sponsoring projects, business participants can serve in a number of ways. One is through “being able to communicate with legislators about the importance of early childhood education and how the business community benefits—being advocates on our behalf.”

Other ways include participating on its boards. By doing so, business leaders can share their leadership skills and strategic planning expertise in helping the center shape long-term business plans. Businesses also support the center through corporate contributions, foundation grants, sponsoring fundraising events, individual contributions, corporate matching, United Way designated donations and hands-on volunteer service.

At last year’s “A Night in Tuscany,” NBCC’s signature fundraiser, more than 200 people participated in a fun-filled day at the StoneTree Golf Club, where they enjoyed golf, dinner, a raffle and an auction. The event raised $70,000 to support NBCC scholarships and health and nutrition programs.

Business leaders tend to see their participation not as donations, but as investments. An example is Brayton Purcell LLP, a legal firm specializing in personal injury cases. The firm’s main office is located in Novato. “I’ve been a fairly active supporter [of NBCC] for more than 10 years,” says Al Brayton, founding and senior partner. “Susan realized early on that in the local area, many families had to have both parents working to survive. She realized the need for dual incomes to cover the basics. She came to us and asked, ‘What can we do to provide what you need as an employer? What are your employees’ needs?’”

As an employer, Brayton could see that parents had problems juggling their children’s childcare drop-off and pick-up times with their own work hours. Another big problem was that, while there were plenty of programs for after-school care, employees who needed to come back to work after maternity /paternity leave were having big problems finding programs for infants and toddlers that offered more than just babysitting. What Brayton particularly liked was that, instead of making his employees struggle to fit the center’s schedule, Gilmore asked what their needs were, then extended hours and developed programs to fit those needs.

What’s more, for employees who find childcare eating up a large portion of their incomes, NBCC offers various levels of subsidies. “It’s not just for those who can afford it,” Brayton says.

For its part, Brayton Purcell is a presenting sponsor of “A Night in Tuscany” and of the center’s other annual fundraising event, the Marin Valentine’s Ball, a benefit for NBCC and other children’s organizations. Al Brayton also sits on the NBCC advisory board. Nancy Williams, an associate attorney at Brayton Purcell, is a member of the center’s board of directors and does pro bono work for it.

In addition, the firm supports scholarships and has given grants to help develop Gardens of Eatin’ at new NBCC sites as they’re added. “The garden is a wonderful program. They should have it in all schools,” comments Brayton. “Look at what it can do to teach health and nutrition at an early age. This investment isn’t small, but it’s not huge either—and the return on investment is incredible.”

More strong support

Kaiser Permanente, as a health care-centered business, is also a big supporter of the Gardens of Eatin’ at the various school sites. In addition to grants for garden projects, Willa Jefferson-Stokes, associate medical group administrator, provided consultation on the plans for the center.

According to Pat Kendall, medical group administrator at Kaiser Permanente, “We know the lifestyle issues that contribute to all of the causes of illness and death in our community. They are what we eat, our activity, smoking and drinking alcohol. Our efforts are around creating a culture of health, which means when you or anyone goes to make a choice, the healthiest choice will be the easiest choice because that will be our culture.”

She commends NBCC for making a culture of health a reality for growing children. “An individual’s comfort foods are formed early in life, and the children at NBCC will remember peas and cherry tomatoes as their comfort foods. The kids plant, pick and eat the food from the garden. They love their garden, and that really shows. In addition to the garden in Novato, NBCC has spread its curriculum to many others, offering its wisdom, outcomes and passion.”

The list of corporations supporting NBCC year after year with significant ongoing investment includes Fireman’s Fund, AT&T and Speedway Children’s Charities, to name a few.

From a parent’s point of view, NBCC is a place that lets you relax, knowing your children are in a great environment. “It’s not a glorified daycare,” says Ian Smith, principal of BMK Accounting LLC. Smith sent one of his sons to NBCC for the child’s entire preschool experience and another for before and after school care. The preschooler “was totally ready for kindergarten, ready for reading and writing,” he says. “But the real thing that was different was the garden. I would often go to pick up Benji and he would be in the garden picking strawberries.”

“It’s totally worth the cost,” he says. “It lets two parents work and focus on bringing in money.”

Gilmore notes that childcare programs support “every other industry that exists by providing opportunities for parents to be in the workplace.” Further, “we support both immediate and future needs by providing quality learning experiences that set the stage for lifelong academic success.”

Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Leadership Council, says in that organization’s study, “The nature of the Bay Area requires a well-trained workforce that has the capacity to update skills and meet the needs of emerging industries. That can’t happen without an affordable and high-quality childcare system.” With business lending a hand, NBCC has made a good start in developing such a system in the North Bay.



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