Couple open their own nursery school
When Judith Welch was pregnant with her first child, Justin, she and her husband James started to look around for nursery schools. What they found was a frustrating lack of standards and amenities in local child care offerings. Out of the search was born the idea that they could start their own nursery school.
"We just thought, there has to be a better way," said Mrs Welch.
Four years later, and now expecting their second child, the couple has finally made their dream a reality. They are now accepting students for their nursery, the Onion Patch Academy located in the basement of St Paul's AME Church. It's open to children from 12 months to four years old, and a limited number of infants in the three-month to 12-month bracket.
"It has taken four years of hits, misses and close calls and everything in between to set this up," said Mrs Welch. "We had literally been from East to West looking at everything from residential to commercial properties. We even looked at land to build. Just by the grace of God, this opened up."
Like a lot of parents they chose Justin's current nursery for relationship reasons. They knew that Justin's would-be teacher at the school had a good reputation and had taught other children they knew.
"That is the norm in Bermuda," said Patrice Wilson, Onionpatch head teacher."If you know someone else whose child goes there, you think, okay they are there so it should be good for my child."
Ms Wilson said there were other factors that should also be considered besides word-of-mouth. For example, parents should ask a lot of questions about the curriculum, amenities at the school and discipline policies. Ms Wilson will not only be teaching at the school when it opens in August, her own daughter will be entering the three-year-old class.
"I think word-of-mouth is great in Bermuda," she said. "For example, it is really helping us with our open house. But outside of word-of-mouth I would definitely say look at the nursery's website or get a flyer to read up on what the philosophy, mission and curriculum is of the school. Believe it or not, even when you are taking children at 12 months, people want to know what curriculum you offer. Being able to produce that information is a seller, even for a 12-month-old. Another thing I know people look at, which Onionpatch has, is our own minivan service unlike other schools who have to call around to secure transportation.
"I think the curriculum should be well-rounded. For a 12-month-old you are going to want more hands-on activities happening. By the time the child reaches the four-year-old programme, there should definitely be something that incorporates academics to prepare them for when they go to primary school. Two-year-olds should also be offered some hands-on stuff."
She said she previously worked at a preschool with a lot of individualised learning. If there was a child who had mastered some of the concepts being taught, then teachers would find a way to teach and challenge that child, while teaching the group at the same time.
"A bored child can be a troubled child," she said. "You want to keep that child engaged as well."
Mrs Welch said many parents of the parents who came in to look at the nursery school were very well-informed. They had read the website down to the last full stop.
?Some have come in and asked us a lot of questions and really tested us,? said Mrs Welch. ?They want to know that we know our stuff. We made it clear this is not a babysitting service, this is an educational service. People said if that is the case, what is the curriculum? Is there music? Is there gymnastics, Spanish, French immersion? They want to know what their children are going to be exposed to. It is a lot different from probably when my parents put my sister and I in daycare.?
The face of early childhood education is changing in Bermuda. Two years ago, it was hard to find a nursery school in Bermuda that took students under the age of two. Now that is changing.
?At one school I am familiar with they had a two to four-year-old group, but they started to lose a lot of their four-year-olds to government preschools so they started to lower to 18 months old to subsidise the four-year-olds they lost,? said Ms Wilson.
There are also two private primary schools on the Island that are taking students at three and four years old, which also helps to siphon off children from older nursery classes.
As a result of a high level of interest in infant care, Mrs Welch decided during the open house period to begin taking a limited number of infants between the ages of three and 12 months. She had originally only been intending to take children from the age of 12 months.
?With the current daycare regulations, operationally it is very difficult to take kids at three months old,? she said. ?When I first started looking at this I was interested in infant care from three months old to two years. That was what I was going to do. But you would have to have an exorbitant number of babies to be able to make it feasible. The teacher to baby ratio is one to three. It is very hard to do that. People think, ?oh babies they just sleep a lot?, but actually they are quite active. You have to have space for them to crawl. Then you have to secure all the electrical outlets. Then you can?t have anything that they could possibly pull down on themselves. It creates a whole different dynamic when it comes to furnishing your facility.?
She and her husband were hoping to one day expand their nursery school to other centres around the Island, and maybe even add primary and high school education to their offerings.
?This is our attempt to raise the standard of childcare in Bermuda,? she said.
Mrs Welch recently received her teaching certification through a distance programme offered by Mount Saint Vincent University. As part of the programme, she did practical training at a local middle school. She said the experience really brought home to her how important early childhood education is for future school success.
?There are so many children in the school system that you see are deficient in some area,? she said. ?I worked in a middle school last year and I can tell you that some students struggle with writing their own names. If some of those students were attended to earlier they wouldn?t be having these problems. How many scholarships have been lost because people can?t fill out a form properly? It starts when they are one or two years old recognising letters, and three and four years old starting to write their names. It starts from there. We are trying to create a foundation in what we are trying to do so that as they move along, they will experience success.?
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