Under the theme “Black Health and Wellness,” this year's Black History Month recognizes the contributions of those who have committed their lives to countering economic and health disparities that Black Americans often face in their communities. At AdventHealth, we pride ourselves in our team members' transformational stories and are excited to share them as our organization continues on its journey to address equity gaps in underserved communities.
Ensuring a Great Early Start
Children who participate in high-quality early childhood education (ECE) programs before entering kindergarten later experience fewer special education placements, decreased grade retention and improved high school graduation rates compared with peers who do not participate, according to research by the American Educational Research Association (AERA).
Over the past two years, AdventHealth for Children, through its West Lakes Early Learning Center, has assumed a pivotal role in shaping the foundational years of a child's life in several meaningful ways.
This role was assumed at an extremely crucial time when the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit, and the world had come to a complete standstill. Nevertheless, the center was relentless in its effort to address disparities worsened by the pandemic.
To help reduce the negative impact of the pandemic on infants and toddlers, particularly those of essential workers, the center opened its doors to empower children to thrive physically, mentally and spiritually, from as early as 6 weeks to 5 years of age. It offers a blended curriculum based on Primrose Schools’ research-based Balanced Learning® curriculum and AdventHealth’s CREATION Kids. There’s also an onsite pediatric clinic and a comprehensive services component to support child health and wellness.
Alfreda Clark is the center director of the West Lakes Early Learning Center and has been leading efforts to provide a high-quality early learning program to meet the needs of children and families since April 2020.
"The first 2,000 days of a child's life matter the most," Clark said. "Since the center was established, we've focused on how we can best assist our communities and provide equitable opportunities for our families."
Making Underserved Families a Priority
The West Lakes Early Learning Center currently serves 142 children who live in the communities of West Lakes in Orlando, Florida. West Lakes is where the first interracial little league baseball game was played in 1955. It’s also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke when he was at Tinker Field, with Camping World Stadium in the backdrop, during his 1964 visit to Orlando. Additionally, in 1966, the Golden Bears made history by becoming the first football team from a historically black college to win a postseason bowl game during the Citrus Bowl. Also, West Lakes’ historic Jones High School performed at the 1964 and 1982 World’s Fairs and at Carnegie Hall in 2018.
Numerous black doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals have called West Lakes home over several decades. However, after years of disinvestment in the area, significant pockets of underserved children and families are present in the communities, as well as retired homeowners and working families.
Strategic investments supporting health and wellness and educational equity have to be made in order to strengthen communities faced with years of disinvestment. One key way the West Lakes Early Learning Center differentiates itself is by meeting these health and wellness needs of the communities it serves, in addition to providing the basic tenets of education.
Through the support of the leadership at AdventHealth for Children, the center consistently provides a wide range of comprehensive services like free screening for vision, hearing, speech/language, occupational and physical therapy. All children enrolled at the center also have onsite access to a pediatric clinic and therapy services.
"There are a lot of challenges present within communities that lack access to essential resources," Clark said. "Through some of our funding sources, we've been able to provide high-quality early learning, health and wellness and enrichment opportunities as well. I believe that access to effective, diverse programs helps to break down structural barriers that have prevented all children – particularly children of color, children from disadvantaged families and underserved communities – from achieving their full potential.”
Margaret Hill lives in the Rock Lakes community, one of the communities the center primarily serves. As president of the Rock Lakes Homeowners Association, she expressed her appreciation in having the center's services within the community's reach.
"Early learning is the basis for education," said Hill. "We're very excited about the medical services that are available, and they [the center] have a great transition plan to elementary school, plus many other healthy community support programs.
The ELC utilizes a developmentally appropriate curriculum that allows for adjustments for children with varying abilities. It's great to know that every component is aimed at making our families and the children successful."
Vice Admiral David L. Brewer III is a West Lakes resident. He's chairman of the West Lakes partnership board and a U.S. Navy veteran.
He shared his experience in his former capacity as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District in California.
"One of the things I quickly found out in my previous experience was that children were struggling mainly because they didn’t have a great foundation," said Brewer. "When children have a great foundation in early learning, there's no doubt that they will have better life outcomes in terms of economics, health and behavioral risk."
“Creating a win-win environment in which everyone can grow and learn has been key to the success of the center,” said Maria Katz, director of education at the West Lakes Early Learning Center.
"First, I'm a mom – second, I'm a teacher," said Katz. "Just by thinking as a mom and a teacher, I try to create that win-win situation. When I'm working with the staff and they have a 'mom' problem, I get it. When they have a 'teacher' problem, I also get it because that's the hardest job in the building."
Driving Early Education Inclusion with Passion
Clark's life experiences have helped her in her role now as center director to deeply nurture children from diverse backgrounds.
"Early learning is my first love," said Clark. "I feel like it encompasses a lot of the strengths and natural abilities that are just a part of who I am and how much I love children."
Overall, Clark considers herself a change agent. She believes she's gifted to serve others through uncommon compassion and is inspired by knowing that what she contributes today could change the trajectory of someone’s life tomorrow.
As director of education, Katz believes education can change lives and is deeply passionate about educational equity.
"Each day at the center, the teachers and children inspire me to provide the best support and care to create an amazing learning environment for the children," said Katz. "I have complete gratitude for the ability to work with teachers, children and their families to truly make a difference. It is wonderful being able to go to work and find both passion and joy each day doing what I love."
Looking forward into 2022, the center plans to introduce more initiatives aimed at fostering the wholistic development of children. These include free enrichment opportunities such as soccer, dance and arts instruction; enhancing the onsite gardening experience; STEM extension activities; and organizing an educational series on health advocacy and goal-setting for parents.
The West Lakes Early Learning Center is an AdventHealth for Children collaboration with Lift Orlando, Primrose Schools and the residents and families of the West Lakes communities, with support from the Bainum Family Foundation.