Early Learning Acceleration Institute Bringing High-Quality Early Learning to More Children in Central Alabama

A little girl with a green bow in her hair thrusts her sippy cup, topped with a lid fashioned to look like Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, into the air.

A group of preschool aged children sit on a colorful rug on the floor as a girl in a green dress and denim vest raises her hand.

She’s waiting her turn to answer her teacher with a word that starts with the letter “L.” This is from a glimpse inside the blue-painted walls of a classroom at New Beginning Child Development Center in Birmingham’s Roebuck Springs neighborhood.

About 10 other children sip water or juice, raise their hands and answer “lock” or “lemon” in turn. And images of fish swim across the giant screensaver on the smart board at the front of the room.

This is the classroom of Miss Barry, one of New Beginning’s star teachers, whose class consists of about 12 four-year-olds. The center takes care of about 91 children in all.

In the 18 years that New Beginning has operated, it has grown significantly, starting from a small space in Birmingham’s Kingston neighborhood, before moving downtown and then finally ending up at the large church space where they operate now.

Plentiful space as well as staffing are two of the biggest obstacles for childcare centers, said Tonya Wilson, the center’s director.

“Our parents, right now, they can’t go to work because we have kids on a waiting list…because we don’t have teachers,” Wilson said. “Or some centers don’t have the space to accommodate them.”

Today, one of those problems is being corrected, with New Beginning receiving a grant of $25,000 to renovate space in its building for another classroom.

“We’re licensed for 105 kids until we get our other classrooms open. The renovations that we’re doing now, with help from United Way of Central Alabama, are going to open up spaces for about 30 kids,” Wilson said.

Funding for the facility improvements is provided through a grant from the Early Learning Acceleration Institute (ELAI), a new initiative from the United Way Bold Goals Coalition that supports childcare providers by helping increase their capacity to offer high-quality early-learning programs.

ELAI, funded through a transformative $1 million gift from the James Milton and Sallie R. Johnson Foundation, was created in partnership with a variety of local experts in early education. Among the many partners who have guided the program are Childcare Resources, Women’s Foundation of Alabama and Success By 6, another UWCA educational program.

New Beginning is one of four child development centers in Central Alabama receiving ELAI funding to increase capacity.

In addition to New Beginning, Jasper Area Family Services Center, New Horizon Academy in Birmingham’s East Lake neighborhood and Foundations Early Learning Center in Fairfield will also be receiving $25,000 each to build and furnish new classrooms, creating space for a total of up to 81 more students.

The next round of ELAI grant applications is set to open on February 2. Applications will be available at UWCA.org/Grant-Opportunities.

The goal of ELAI is to support early learning providers by equipping them with the knowledge, skills and tools to improve business operations, enhance program quality and expand center capacity to ensure that children enter kindergarten ready to learn.

The institute is a new way for UWCA to continue to advance early childhood education, said Drew Langloh, UWCA’s President and CEO.

“High-quality early learning centers are essential to our community’s success, and we want to find innovative ways to grow our regional capacity to meet the needs of families across our footprint,” Langloh said. “While early education is the foundation for individuals, those same people become the foundation of our community.”

ELAI grant recipients will receive training on early-learning best practices and teaching strategies, business development training to ensure their long-term financial sustainability, technical assistance on accessing state-funded programs and up to $25,000 to support facility enhancements.

ELAI’s support of these childcare centers is critical, impacting the whole family and providing “building blocks to a child’s future,” said Katrina Watson, Senior Vice President of Community Impact at UWCA.

“These facilities give parents the opportunity to provide their children with a high-quality learning environment that fits the social, emotional and cognitive needs of their children,” Watson said. “Access to early-learning facilities is crucial due to the long-lasting impact it can have on children’s educational achievement as they age.”

ELAI is one of many ways that UWCA is working to improve educational outcomes in Central Alabama.

Just this year, the United Way Bold Goals Coalition launched its Fairfield Community Schools strategy, which seeks to advance community success and academic achievement by offering social services and programs to students and families within school buildings. 

New Beginning itself was a Success By 6 participant, having previously received significant instructional support from UWCA’s School Readiness Specialists.

“United Way of Central Alabama has done so much for me and my family, my center, my children,” Wilson said.

For more information about the Bold Goals Coalition, visit BoldGoals.org. For more about UWCA’s other work in education, go to https://www.uwca.org/our-work/student-success.