By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News
Laughter and excited voices of young children filled the air on an overcast Spring morning outside of the Betty J. Taylor Early Learning Academy (TELA). The kids stood before a large dirt pile and with plastic shovels in hand. The future of Tulalip held the honor of officially breaking ground for a much-needed expansion on the Academy’s birth-to-three side of the campus. With joyous vigor, the kids took turns driving their shovels into the dirt. Some of the youngins simply uplifted the dirt from one area to the next, making sure to pat down any areas with clumps, while others flung dirt high into the air in celebration, hilariously causing uprooted earth to shower down on their teachers and classmates.
“We wanted this to be about the kids,” exclaimed Betty J. Taylor Early Learning Academy Director, Sheryl Fryberg. “We had them come out and do it because this is going to be for them, for the little people. It was so beautiful having them take part. It was so exciting for them to be out here and digging in the dirt.”
For the past seven years, since first opening, TELA has been an excellent program for the kids of the Tulalip community. More than just a daycare or your average pre-school, the reservation-based early learning academy implements the Tulalip culture into the young minds of the Tribe’s future leaders.
Sheryl stated, “Research says that when we bring the culture and language to our children, they do better in the school years, college years, career years and in life. That’s the foundation that we want to build here for as many of our children as we can. We have a lot of families out here who need great childcare and the work that we do here is more of a school, that’s why we call it an academy. We’re laying a really strong foundation for kids to be successful in elementary, middle school, high school – we want to wrap them in our culture and language here in their early years.”
Throughout the first years of the students’ lives, the kiddos are fully-immersed in the Coast Salish culture at the academy where they learn Tulalip songs, stories, traditions and the Lushootseed language. Prior to COVID-19, the academy regularly held ‘culture day’ once a month, where the students would take part in an assembly and activity, learning of the Tulalip lifeways as well as other cultures from around the globe.
“All our classrooms are incorporating the Tulalip culture, and other cultures, in the classrooms,” said TELA Birth-to-Three Grants Manager, Mekyla Fryberg. “We have the Lushootseed department that works with us, and they provide that language in the classrooms every single day. Our teachers are using the language with the kids, we have a curriculum that we built together with the language department, and that has been something that we have strived for and I believe we are making way. Today, we were able to see the kids bring their drums out from their classrooms and share songs in our groundbreaking ceremony. And that is something that we have aimed for, to provide our kids with the opportunity to embrace their culture.”
With the expansion, TELA will be adding an additional three classrooms for the birth-to-three program, which ultimately means more students will receive those cultural teachings once the new wing is completed. The new classrooms will be larger in size and thus will provide space for more kids in each class.
The expansion is something the academy has been working towards for years said Mekyla. Every year, once the program has reached full capacity, there has been a waitlist of approximately thirty kids who want to begin their academic career with TELA. Most of those families unfortunately had to turn to alternate childcare, and therefore have missed out on the cultural-based teachings. With the new classrooms, the hope is for the waitlist to be eliminated and that all the children of the Tulalip community will get the chance to attend the academy.
“Prior to COVID, we always had a waiting list for like thirty children who wanted to come to the birth-to-three wing,” said Sheryl. “It seems like it keeps growing every year, so we took advantage of some grant dollars that we had available, and the Tribe kicked in some funding also to help us build this addition so we can hopefully meet the needs of our community.”
Added Mekyla, “I started here when we first opened in 2015 and I have witnessed first-hand the need for those additional enrollment slots in the birth-to-three program. There has been a waitlist of between fifteen to thirty kids every school year. As soon as we reach full enrollment, there’s a waitlist. To know that we are going to be able to open-up three new classrooms, that’s rewarding for me to know that we saw the need and acted on that need, and that we are going to be able to complete this project and serve our community the best that we can.”
After participating in the groundbreaking ceremony, TELA students will be involved with the expansion project until it’s completion. The new wing is slated to open in the Fall of 2023, but the kids will be able to visibly track its progression throughout the project, as the windows along the birth-to-three corridor will remain uncovered so the kids can see the construction process take place.
“It was thrilling to witness the kids participate in moving dirt and complete that groundbreaking ceremony,” expressed Mekyla. “It’s been a long time coming to complete this project. It’s exciting because this will improve our services that we offer to families and increase our enrollment.”