Five-Star rating

Katie Woodall, Director of Copper Creek Early Learning Center, asks Austin Tutone, 5, where he thinks a piece of honeycomb came from. The Oro Valley preschool program has earned a 5-Star rating from Quality First, a program of the state's early childhood health and education organization First Things First.

Hillary Davis/Tucson Local Media

When one of Katie Woodall’s students at Copper Creek Early Learning Center found a piece of honeycomb on the classroom patio, she encouraged all the children to study it with magnifying glasses, describe the colors and textures, draw it, and consider how the bees used it in their hive.

Woodall often asks the children, “What do you want to do help your brain grow?” And they eagerly answer.

“Their voices are really heard in our classroom,” she said.

It’s that kind of respect for children’s natural inquisitiveness and independence that recently led the Oro Valley preschool to a five-star rating from Quality First, a program of the state’s early childhood health and education organization First Things First.

Quality First evaluates programs in a variety of domains, including teacher-child interactions, learning environments, lessons that follow state requirements or recommendations, group sizes, child assessment and parent communication, staff qualifications, and health and safety practices. In-home, center and school-based programs selected for the program receive coaching and funding, including scholarships for families.

Although there are close to 200 Quality First-affiliated care and education providers of all levels in the greater Tucson area, only six have the five-star rating.

Copper Creek takes its inspiration from the Reggio Emilia approach, an early-childhood education philosophy that subscribes to “emergent curriculum” and the idea that children are competent. Under the organic, student-driven emergent curriculum, lesson plans aren’t determined far in advance. Instead, teachers constantly take notes on the children’s expressed interests and work those into the next week’s lessons, guided by state standards for pre-reading, writing and math.

The children know they are the architects of their own learning, Woodall said, which gives them a sense of collaboration and ownership.

“The Reggio inspiration believes completely that children really should be a catalyst in their learning,” she said.

Mica LaBellarte, Copper Creek’s Quality First Coach, said that Copper Creek has one of the strongest grasps she’s seen of emergent curriculum.  

With Reggio, children learn how to think critically, with multi-modal and open-ended techniques that reward curiosity and persistence, she said.

“I see them really getting what it means to utilize the Reggio really well, and I think that adds to their strengths,” she said.

To earn the five-star rating, Copper Creek first had to join the Quality First program- it’s a voluntary process, but because resources are limited there is a waiting list. The tuition-based preschool, which contracts with the Amphitheater School District to operate out of Copper Creek Elementary School, was accepted into Quality First last year.

Evaluators came down to the school to gauge how the teachers interact with the children. After that, they took a deeper look at the more administrative processes.

Copper Creek ended the school year with 41 families enrolled, with two mixed-age classrooms for ages 3, 4 and 5 and the staffing to cap the teacher-child ratio at 1 to 10. Children stay for a full 6 and a half-hour school day, although families can choose two, three and five-day weeks, depending on the child’s age and needs.

As they might in grade school, teachers here maintain portfolios on each pupil, hold parent conferences and assemble weekly “learning stories” that tell in words and pictures what the children have been learning.

Woodall said that kindergarten used to be the time for children to learn the social, emotional and academic skills needed for their educational careers, but the current rigors of even early elementary education require youngsters to build that foundation earlier.

In the Copper Creek classroom, Woodall tells her charges that they are a “caring community of learners.” Children learn from each other, even if it’s just about how to snap together a toy train set. And every day they gather together for a “morning meeting,” where they talk about what’s going on in the classroom.

That may be another time to bring up the honeycomb, or some other interest. Parents have a voice, too. For example, after one girl’s parents said she’d become fascinated with germs after watching a television special, Woodall nurtured and shared her interest with weeks of study. Teachers helped the children research germs, cultured different areas of the classroom in petri dishes, and invited the girl’s parents, both doctors, to give lectures on germs.

LaBellarte said that developmentally, learning about “community,” as the learners do at Copper Creek, could be more important than, say, learning about calendars.

“When I see them in action, I can really see how significant the impact is going to be on these children,” she said.

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