By Adam Rosenfeld
Fifty years ago, a group of passionate like-minded individuals dedicated their lives to changing the landscape of early childhood education.
Founded in 1968, the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center started in the basement of Chesterbrook Presbyterian Church. Today, with an entire facility connected to Lemon Road Elementary, the purpose is still the same: to get young children, especially those of low socioeconomic status, ready for elementary school.
“The core mission is to provide the best possible early childhood education and support for the entire family so that all children are ready for school,” Margery Leveen Sher, a former director told the News-Press. “That is regardless of their family’s income or their circumstance or the abilities or disabilities of the children.”
Serving kids aged 18 months through six years, one aspect that sets the center apart from its competitors is the ratio of teachers to kids. There are 25 staff members for 80 preschoolers and three teachers for every classroom.
While some people might find this statistic overwhelming, it is necessary because of the makeup of the classrooms.
“Because our ratio is much better, we’re able to meet the needs of all kinds of kids, kids that come here and don’t speak any English, or children with disabilities,” Elizabeth Page, another former director said. “I don’t think we could meet the needs of those kids if we didn’t have the ratio that we have.”
Not only does the center cater to disadvantaged students, but it deliberately sets aside half of their spots for low-income working families.
It is able to accommodate a portion of the 17 percent of households in Fairfax that bring in under $50,000 a year through subsidies. Between the support of their faith groups and the Fairfax County government, the center is able to either waive or decrease the tuition for low-income families.
Sher highlighted this aspect of their mission because she said it is important to represent the underprivileged persons that many County residents are unaware exist in Fairfax.
“I call it the ‘Hidden Fairfax,’” Sher said. “It is all around us. A mile away from the most affluent people living in their McMansions, are pockets of low-income people, people living in poverty. It’s in every community in McLean and Falls Church.”
The center also emphasizes classroom diversity.
Recently, however, it has been harder for the center to attract families of different races because as part of the application process, they must go to the Fairfax County Government Center. This is a scary endeavor for many non-white families because regardless of their legal status in the United States, they are worried they will be unfairly scrutinized.
Moreover, while 47.5 percent of the population of Fairfax is non-white, those demographics are not widely represented in many child-care facilities.
The center hopes to curb systemic problems like these by better representing the racial makeup of Fairfax County and accomodating every family. So, many of the center’s staff are bilingual and most signs throughout the building are in both English and Spanish.
“Some of our families have said to me that this is a safe place for them,” Page said. “It’s like a haven because they can speak to the teachers in their native language and because we’re not judgemental. We treat everybody equally and families feel it. It makes a big difference.”
Along with creating a diverse environment, the center offers an alternative curriculum which differs from most preschools. The concept the center adopted is one which stresses the importance of children learning through play.
The school implements the Creative Curriculum developed by the company Teaching Strategies which uses lesson plans like cooking to learn about chemistry and understanding architecture through designing a building with blocks.
“Children learn through play, and we know that through research,” Sher said. “If a 2-year-old is sitting at a desk and working on worksheets, then it is a very poor quality program. This is the highest quality full day preschool you could find anywhere.”
While the school has been a cornerstone of the Falls Church community for 50 years, the programs and mindset adopted by the center have not yet attained the same popularity throughout the rest of the country.
Page said, however, that it is imperative for people to begin to understand that young children have a better chance of being successful if they get a headstart in their education.
“It would be helpful if the community at-large would really appreciate what we do here, and be more supportive,” she said. “I wish the world would wake up and notice that kids do well if they get a good start, but it’s hard to spread the word.”
Residents interested in learning more about the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center can visit fcmlcc.org.