Little Jackets Learning Center transforms from daycare to learning facility

April 27, 2019 GMT

SPEARFISH — Since 1988, the Little Jackets Learning Center has provided students, faculty, and staff at Black Hills State University with childcare services. Now, that program is getting an overhaul, which will benefit both children and students.

“We’re developing a much closer tie between the university and the Little Jackets Learning Center,” said Dr. Rod Custer, chair of the School of Education at BHSU. “We have students that are coming to study early childhood education, and the ideal laboratory is to go over to a learning center, where kids are, and practice their craft.”

Custer explained that until recently, the daycare program has simply been a place where parents could drop off their kids and have them cared for while the parents worked or pursued a higher education. The new and improved learning center will not only benefit the students enrolled in the School of Education, but the children themselves will be an active part of the education process, “Where they’re coming in and growing and learning,” Custer said. “Where they’re getting an education as part of their daily experience.”

Brett McCue, director of the learning center, said one of the main focuses of the program is to get children out in the community for some hands on education opportunities.

BHSU students enrolled in the early education program will also have the opportunity to gain experience working with the children in a classroom setting as well as out in the community from experienced caregivers.

“Our goal is to make sure that our children are in the community, supporting the community, where we can tie that into an education learning study for them,” McCue said.

Dr. Elizabeth Christian, assistant professor of early childhood education at BHSU, reiterated that goal, adding that young children learn and retain more from the act of doing more than sitting in a classroom being taught.

“What does learning look like?” Christian posed. “What do you see when learning happens? You see engagement, you see children doing, not just sitting, but you see children doing, connecting prior experiences they’ve had in the past to what they’re doing now.”

The changes being implemented at the learning center are relatively new, and the staff is still smoothing out some rough edges, but one point that is perfectly clear is a greater engagement in and with the community.

“What we’re grasping is just involving the community, so whoever wants to step in, or whoever wants an opportunity to help the little children learn, give us a call, email us, because we want to share those things with them,” McCue said.

An example of this type of community involvement came Wednesday when a group of nearly 20 2- and 3-year-olds were treated to a tour of the Green Oven Bakery & Crepe café in Spearfish. Owner Laura Butler and members of her staff opened the shop, which is usually closed on Wednesdays, especially for the tykes to experience some hands-on fun while decorating their own cookies and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchen.

Another main point of the revamped learning center is to make the program better known as a community offering and not only for those affiliated with BHSU.

“Historically, the constituents for Little Jackets Learning Center were the BHSU faculty, staff, and students who had children,” said Dr. Carin Neitzel, assistant professor of education psychology at BHSU. “Now we’re thinking of a constituency bigger than that to include the Spearfish and local communities as well.”

McCue said scheduling is one hurdle the program will have to address if it wants to cater to the greater Black Hills community.

“What we want to do is check with the parents and check with the community and make sure that we can adjust our schedule and our hours of operation so that we can be open and be able to provide them with what they need,” McCue said.

To that end, the learning center recently formed an advisory board to help oversee and facilitate the new direction in which the program is heading.

“We gathered people that were interested in education, and we’re connected with the community in a lot of very different ways,” Christian said.

The program currently has 52 children signed up, a staff of five permanent teachers, and a fluctuating number of BHSU work-study students throughout the year.

“The four basic pieces of learning are knowledge, skills, practices, and dispositions,” Christian said. “Those are all really big pieces of what we’re trying to put in place for children at Little Jackets.”

For more information about the center’s hours, rates, and registration requirements, call McCue at 642-6322 or email brett.mccue@bhsu.edu.

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