Tulalip Tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon, surrounded by ‘Children of the Salmon’, cuts the ribbon, officially marking the opening of the Betty J. Taylor Early Learning Academy.
By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News
On Friday, August 7, the much anticipated grand opening was held for the Betty J. Taylor Early Learning Academy. The event marked the culmination of over a decade’s worth of planning, devotion, and perseverance by countless individuals committed to helping local community families make a lasting, positive difference in their children’s education. In partnership with parents and community, the caring and experienced Tulalip Tribes teaching staff created a loving and safe environment where children and families can grow in academically. The Betty J. Taylor Early Learning Academy (ELA) provides no cost educational schooling from 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday for children ages birth to 5 years-old.
“In 1999, Les Parks and I took a very transformative trip to Philadelphia to look at a learning academy,” recalls Mel Sheldon, Tulalip Chairman. “We think about education and what it means to our kids, what it means to our community, and how we create safe environments for learning. I look at this building and I see nothing but good vibrations and endless possibilities for our young ones. What a great site for the school here. Our youth are going to have memories that will go long into their life with their teachers, their parents, and all the learning that they’ll be doing.”
A large community attendance, along with representatives of Marysville School District and Washington, D.C. dignitaries, turned out to witness the debut of the gorgeous 52,000 square-foot Early Learning Academy. The facility, oriented towards views over Tulalip Bay and the surrounding woodlands, sits on nine acres of land and is designed to symbolize the tribe’s commitment to a healthy community and a strong foundation for our children’s education. Tribal artists worked with the project team to incorporate artwork on the site and within public spaces of the building to reflect the cultural context being infused into our idea of early learning. Tulalip artwork is clearly visible in the stunning, etched-glass panels provided by James Madison, the blue glass wave directly above the reception area, and the river designed walkway throughout the academy.
Spirited youngsters performed songs during the Early Learning Academy grand opening ceremony.
“To me, this day has been 17 years in the making. It’s been a dream that we’ve all had,” details Les Park, Tulalip Board of Director, to the hundreds of attendees. “Research tells us that 90% of a child’s brain development happens before age five. Ever so true that is, our kids are capable and eager to learn at a very early age. We’ve known this and in response have created several different programs that touch on early learning, but this is the building where we are going to take it to a new and higher level, which I think is going to change our membership in the future. A generation from now, when these kids have grown up and are leading our tribe, they would have learned so much more than they would have, had they just waited to enter the public school system. It’s so exciting for me to witness this, a 17 year vision come to fruition today as we bring an early learning academy to Tulalip.”
Far too many children enter public school kindergarten unprepared for the drastic changes in routine and academic expectations. When children begin school unprepared it’s only a matter of time before they fall behind, and they tend to fall further behind as the school year progresses. All children need to enter school ready and able to succeed, which is why early education is so important. Cognitively, early education improves school performance, raises math and language abilities, and sharpens thinking and attention skills. Early learning also has plenty of social and emotional benefits as well. Children will improve and strengthen their interactions with peers, decrease problem behaviors, and helps adjustment to the demands of formal education.
With the opening of the Early Learning Academy, we fully expect all the added benefits and rewards of early learning to materialize for our children. However, those aren’t the only benefits of the ELA, as many new and exciting changes will be instituted to the way Tulalip will approach educating our young children. One such change is the moniker of the students who will attend the ELA, who will be affectionately known as the ‘Children of the Salmon’. The foremost game changer is the consolidation of all birth to five-year-old programs into one program, under one roof.
“We have brought all our birth to five programs out of their silos and brought them together into one, singular program with the same focus,” explains Sheryl Fryberg, ELA Manager. “We’ve redone all of our policies, procedures, and intake forms to reflect this. We are now the Betty J. Taylor Early Learning Academy. We’re not Montessori, we’re not ECEAP, and we’re not Early Head-Start; we are one.
“This academy is open to all of our tribal kids. In addition to our tribal kids, our service area is Marysville School District, so if your family is within the Marysville School District then your eligible to apply here.”
ELA will be using the Creative Curriculum, but utilizing different strategies. Teaching staff will utilize the Teaching Strategies assessment tools to show the progress that all of our children are making. This curriculum assures that the academy remains aligned with the school readiness early learning content standards, while doubling as a means to provide constant feedback on students’ progress.
“We will be utilizing a new child evaluation system, so that we can keep track of where our kids are with their learning,” explains Sheryl Fryberg. “Assessments that all our teachers will be using from birth to five will measure our students’ growth in different areas and stages. This process will make it possible for us to create custom and, if need be, individualized lesson plans from the assessment results to ensure we don’t allow any children to lag behind or fall into the gaps. Our top priority is to provide the best educational foundation as possible for each and every ELA student.”
Another big change, that undoubtedly will take some time for parents and students to adjust to, is the switch to a year-around school system. There will be no 2.5 month long summer break for students of the Early Learning Academy, instead there will be four school closures throughout the year. A one-week break will occur in December, April and June, while a two-week break is expected in August.
Interior views of ELA’s classrooms set-up for learning and imaginative play.
“Research shows that when you do year-around schooling the children do much better academically, and what better time to have them transition to year-around school then while they are getting adjusted to the Early Learning Academy,” continues Fryberg. “I feel like we are laying such a strong foundation for our kids and the families to be involved in their kids’ education. The research has shown that when kids are off school for 2.5 months that they lose so much of what they’ve learned. You’re almost starting all over when they come back to school in the fall, so this move to year-around education will be such a huge benefit to the future academic success of our children.”
The academic success of our children is at the forefront of every idea and strategy that will be implemented in the ELA’s curriculum. The cultural tie-ins will remain and even be pushed to new limits, especially when it comes to teaching and learning the Tulalip language, Lushootseed.
“We’re working with the Lushootseed department to develop an immersion classroom,” says Fryberg. “We haven’t worked out all the details just yet, but for 18-months to 3 years-old we want one classroom for three hours a day, all the children do is speak and hear our Lushootseed language. Then we want to follow that group up, continuing to offer them Lushootseed immersion, and see what the end results are. If it’s successful, then we can find grants to really grow a Lushootseed immersion program.”
The ELA playground was built with safety in mind, featuring specialty mats to prevent injury and no public access.
One vision leads to another. As the ELA opens its doors to the children of our community and promises long-term positive results, one can’t help wonder what the future holds for the cohorts of birth to 5 year-olds whose education and future academic prospects just got a whole lot brighter. Time will determine just how big an impact the ELA’s foundation will have on the tribe’s future, but for now let us just appreciate all the people and effort that made the ELA possible.
“There were so many people involved, who came together as a team to make this vision a reality,” proclaims Misty Napeahi, General Manager of the Tulalip Tribes. “It’s not easy when we’ve had separate programs run as individual programs with different teaching models for all these years. We know the commitment to the children will supersede all obstacles and that our teaching staff will all be working together to serve our children. It couldn’t be done in a better facility. This building is absolutely gorgeous. This dream came true because of all the hard work of our maintenance and construction teams, our teaching staff, and all those who were involved behind the scenes. Because of you all, our children will be here for years to come.”