May 23, 2013

Out of the Box: FYPK

Today our youngest child graduates from preschool. Obviously this is a big deal to us - watching our baby become a big kid. But it also is very difficult for another reason. This is the last day that we will have a child enrolled at First Years Preschool and Kindergarten of Oviedo. For the last nine years, we have had a child attending FYPK every year except the two we were living in Tallahassee, and we would have had Gabe enrolled those two years. I will say without a doubt that First Years is the finest preschool I have ever interacted with. And it has had an immeasurable and eternal impact on all three of our kids.

I have been taught many times that everything rises and falls with leadership. If that is true, that explains why First Years is such an amazing place. Shannon Chambley has been the director for as long as I can remember. She is an incredibly gifted educator, speaker, and encourager.  She knows every child's name.  I mean, like literally knows every name.  By the second week of school she is standing at the door welcoming each child by name.  Today at graduation, she introduced each child as they came up on stage.  There was no list, no teleprompter.  The kids weren't holding little cards.  She just knew them all.  She has a heart for every one of those little guys and girls.  She wants to see them learn and grow up to be good godly men and women.  She is compassionate and loving, but also firm and just.  I've been around educational facilities a lot in my life, between being an education major, a parent, and working with schools for my ministry.  But I would be hard pressed to find too many school administrators that are half as good as Shannon.  It was fitting that the last person we saw on the way out the door of the church was Shannon.  I teared up when she hugged us goodbye.  She has been an unfair standard for every subsequent principal our children have had.  And it makes me expect more from my schools.  So, Shannon, thank you for your years of leadership, prayers, and love for us.

But Shannon is not just a figurehead without a support network.  The teachers at First Years are all incredible.  There have been times that we started a year off with a teacher and wondered if this was going to work out.  They seemed to be the opposite of the kind of person our kid needed.  But by the end of the school year, we were sad to have our child move up to the next grade.  They loved our kids. They were tough of them when they needed it (Gabe, looking at you). And they cuddled them when they needed it.  They would recognize areas where my kids were gifted and encouraged them. I remember one of Josiah's teachers identifying his obsession and bizarre comprehension of space.  So she started to use space in her illustrations of other things.  Natalie has always had an aptitude for language.  Gabe has intense creativity and beautiful handwriting.  Each time, the teacher would grab hold of that and use it as an anchor to improve other things.

There have been times my kids were challenging.  (Shut up.)  I am aware of this.  Well, not Natalie.  Apparently Natalie never did anything wrong.  One year, her teacher would move their names from green apples to yellow apples to red apples for behavior warnings.  She got moved to yellow twice all year.  The teachers loved her.  They snuggled her and told her how beautiful she was.  They praised her artwork and encouraged her to explore her music and gymnastics.  She still remembers most of her teachers there and special things they said to her.

My boys were not nearly so easy.  Josiah set the standard.  He got into minor trouble frequently - but nothing major.  He loved to touch people's arms and hair.  Especially Emily's hair.  She had very curly black hair and Josiah LOVED to pat it, stroke it, play with it.  She did not enjoy this.  We would pick him up and hear, "Josiah had a hard time keeping his hands to himself today."  Emily was also the source of another Josiah problem.  One day we heard that he had said that Emily looked like a potato.  I thought this was a strange insult, so I asked what he meant by that.  He said plainly that he had said her SKIN looked like the same color as a potato because she had a little bit darker skin.  Josiah was misunderstood from time to time, apparently.  There also was the time when we went through carline and Josiah's teacher was waiting to put him in the car.  She didn't seem happy.  When she got to the van, she said, "I need to talk to you. Josiah today told some boy he was going to blow his brains out."  We were a bit stunned, since that was not something he should have heard before.  On the way home, we talked to him about it and realized that he had said that something was going to blow the kid's brain, but he meant "blow his mind."  BIG difference.

At a conference with that teacher, we finally addressed some of Josiah's behavior stuff.  For most of his time at First Years, Josiah had done the green/yellow/red apple/frog system.  And he would come home almost every day with yellow apple or sometimes red apple.  But never green apple.  I had grown tired fo hearing this, so I asked just what went into this process.  Did the kid get into trouble and immediately get yellow apple?  The teacher calmly explained that, no, the child got two warnings and then a mark on the board, then two more warnings and then another mark, then two more and then the yellow apple, and then another couple before the red.  I suddenly realized that Josiah was getting corrected eight times a day for the same thing.  I also suddenly had a great deal of sympathy for those teachers.  Know what the funny thing is?  By the middle of first grade, Josiah never got into trouble at school.  He actually has gotten straight A's in behavior (until a couple of questionable choices at the end of this year that will appear in a much later post when I think it is funny - not yet, obviously).

Gabe also was a challenge.  He is a bundle of energy and never seems to tire.  I remember one of Gabe's teachers last year used to greet the parents with, "We had a busy day!  They're going to be tired when they get home."  Then she looked over at me and said, "Well except Gabe.  He never gets tired." I wearily nodded.  This year, it got to be a daily occurrence that he would lose both of his stickers due to behavior issues.  Sometimes they were minor (to me) like not sitting or paying attention to instructions.  These were punctuated, though, with stuff like "Gabe hit Asher in the face with a truck" or "Gabe threw mulch at Kort" or "Gabe threw his lunch today."  I even got to the point where I was convinced the teacher hated Gabe for his many shortcomings.  Here was another chance for Shannon to step in, as she met with me and the teacher separately to make sure things were all fine.  She reassured me and told me that the teacher loved Gabe for his energy and creativity.  I found this out personally through his conferences, where the teacher raved about his journal and his mastery of benchmarks without ever even mentioning behavior issues.  By the end of year, I sat there crying as I watched him in the front row of his graduation ceremony singing with the class and doing every single hand motion perfectly.  No stupid faces.  No swinging his arms around.  No staring into space.  He desperately wanted to do the right thing and couldn't wait to show us the music.  My heart was so full, watching just how much those teachers had helped my baby become a big boy.

So, thank you to all of the teachers and aides we have had through the years.  I am going to do my best to remember them all.  If list of names bore you, just skip to the next paragraph.  Thank you Geina Creviston, Suzy Bortles (twice), Alicia Gyger, Nancy Oxendine (thrice), Mrs Plitt, Carmen Felix (twice), Mrs Nieves (twice), Rachael Hall, Mrs Mattan, Melissa Mayse (twice), Lois Dearolf, Miss Roxie, Mrs Pike, Lu Stasak, Heather Graves, and - of course - Miss Blanca.  Thank you for investing in our babies and for helping them become great kids.

Beyond even the teachers, the office staff was top notch.  They cared about our whole family.  They loved our kids.  But they also followed Heather's journey through medical school and asked her how she was doing every time she came.  They gave us extensions on tuition when they knew things were tight.  They bend over backwards to help us meet deadlines when we weren't sure about where school would take us.  And they also were willing to spend a few minutes chatting with me when I dropped off the kids or picked them up - even though they probably had better things to do.  When we started at First Years, I was working at the church there.  So they knew me as a co-worker.  I would help them run off copies, make powerpoints, and scan drawings.  Later, after I left the church to work for Defender Ministries, they kept up with me.  They asked how the ministry was doing and encouraged me through the ups and downs.  Finally, the knew me as the stay-at-home dad.  It wasn't always easy to be one of just a few guys doing the preschool runs.  I felt like an outsider.  But the staff never made me feel that way.  In fact, it seemed they offered me a special measure of grace.  They probably didn't even realize just how much it meant to me.  So thank you to Sharon Hill, Donnalea Hutchinson, and Melissa Mayse for all you did to make First Years a wonderful place and community.

Academically, First Years gave my kids an advantage.  They already were familiar with most kindergarten benchmarks by the time they finished preschool.  They knew shapes and colors and numbers and letters and were far ahead of reading requirements.  They had gained social skills and behavioral skills.  They had a positive outlook about school and teachers.  But, the biggest thing, is that all three of my kids learned about Jesus while at First Years.  He was a part of their curriculum.  He was talked about during chapel and at Christmas and at Easter and at end-of-the-year assemblies.  They learned songs about God and heard Bible stories.  They learned WHY it was important to make good choices.  And all three of my kids gained a personal relationship with Jesus while at First Years.  That is an eternal impact that I will never be able to put a price on.

So, as I promised, I am not going to bemoan what I will miss about First Years.  Instead, I will just say how thankful and blessed I am that we had the opportunity to have our children there.  Today, Dr Mercer, the pastor of FBC Oviedo, said that First Years is the best preschool in Orlando.  I would agree.  It has been an incredible place for our family.  It put our kids on the right path.  And it ministered to us in so many ways.  All I can really say is thank you.

1 comment:

Shannon Chambley said...

David, you left me in a puddle with your kind words. I am so grateful that you took the time to share about your experience with us at First Years. It means more to all of us than you will ever know. Your family will be greatly missed, but we look forward to hearing how the children progress and the next chapter in the Staples family story that begins in South Carolina. Thanks again!