The Growing Stick keeps family feel in 3-room schoolhouse
As Susan Soward makes her way around the house, playgrounds and gym that make up The Growing Stick Learning Center in Tyler, children call out her name.
"Miss Susan. Miss Susan," they say. Some are looking for a hug. Others want to show her their work. A few ask for help tying a shoe.
As director of the center, Ms. Soward oversees the center's educational program and its teachers. But her favorite part of the job remains spending time with the children.
"One thing that I hear families say, one thing they love about our school is we're so small that our teachers know every child," Ms. Soward said. "They know them by name and then most of our families know every child. And that's just that atmosphere that we have created."
The Growing Stick celebrates 25 years of operation this year.
In 1987, Ms. Soward's mother, Cynthia Nance, and Ms. Nance's best friend, Carie Watson, opened the preschool with 12 students.
Today, it serves about 100 students on average, but the goal is to keep the same family feel the program had when it began.
Inside a three-room house on Willard Drive, children can be heard talking, laughing and yes, in some cases, crying as they go about their day at The Growing Stick.
Ms. Nance's father and her husband owned the house and leased it before she and Ms. Watson decided to open a preschool there.
They converted the three bedrooms to classrooms; the dining room to a music, dance and nap room, the family room to a playroom, and the garage to a center room for pre-K kids.
Last week, the theme for the center rooms was community helpers. So, all activities in the center rooms tied back to the theme.
During the years, they added onto the house building a wing for the 2-year-olds. They also built a gym with classroom space and a kitchen in the large backyard.
Movement is a regular routine as children rotate between rooms every 30 to 45 minutes.
"We know that busy children are happy children," Ms. Soward said. "As long as they are moving and going and singing and active, they're happy and excited and learning."
The center is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Preschool hours, meaning organized learning time, goes from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. During the extended care time, the center offers planned activities.
A staple of the program is its small size. Although the center is licensed by the state to serve up to 140 children, enrollment averages about 100 -- and that's how the owner and director like it.
Eighteen employees, including eight preschool teachers, work there. Many of them have been there for years.
Charlotte Ruyle is one of those. An employee since 1992, she has worked in most of the positions including teacher, curriculum director and office manager (her current position).
"I found the center as a mother just looking for a good quality childcare for my children," Ms. Ruyle said. "As I came, I just kind of was drawn to this business."
All teachers have to have 30 hours of training each year and are encouraged to have a child development associate's degree or a teaching certificate, Ms. Soward said.
In addition, children-to-teacher ratios are lower than required by the state.
As a certified Texas Rising Star provider, the center meets requirements that exceed the state's minimum licensing standards for child care facilities.
But beyond these specifics, the care of the teachers, the program's curriculum and the family feel make it a place kids want to be, parents said.
"There's just a sense of loving the kids is part of the mission," said Ginger Brandt, whose 4-year-old son has been at The Growing Stick since he was 18 months old.
The message delivered by actions is "We will teach them, but we will love them along the way," said Ms. Brandt, 40, who is director of family ministries at First Christian Church in Tyler.
She said some of the things she most appreciates about the school are the longevity of the staff, the fact that they rotate the children to a different room every 30 to 45 minutes, and that they care about the kids.
Dana Smotherman, a Winona resident, has had three children in the program, including a 4-year-old pre-K student now.
"It kind of just feels like a home environment when you walk in," said Ms. Smotherman, 32, a nurse. "It's very homey. They always send all their teachers to get training. I always feel like their teachers are up on what's going on, trying to practice things in school that will help them when they get to kindergarten."
As they look to the future, Ms. Nance said she would like to see her daughter bring in the newest curriculum and emphasize the reading because that is her specialty as a former literacy coach in Tyler ISD.
She said it's been a dream come true to operate this center and many friends and employees have helped influence its direction along the way.
"It's passed by so quickly," Ms. Nance said of her time owning and operating the center. "This is just a dream that has come true."