Learning lab open to little Lions

The priority of the Little Lions Learning Lab, which opened its doors recently to preschool-aged children, is to whet the interest of high school students in careers as educators. 

Before the lab at Louisa County Public Schools even opened its doors, it had already accomplished something else entirely by helping to retain and recruit teachers worried about how to pay for child care.

One new teacher recently told Kenny Bouwens, the school division’s career and technology director for STEAM and innovation, that hearing about the learning lab strongly influenced her decision to work in Louisa.

“Part of our motivation for doing this was that we’re always trying to make our kids more career-ready,” Bouwens said. “The other thing is that everyone knows how hard it is to find child care. How can we make it so teachers can have a fulfilling life and not have to worry about being able to stay in the profession?”

The learning lab will give dozens of students in the high school’s teacher training academy exposure to the child care field during the 2019-2020 school year. Students in the Introduction to Early Childhood Education and Teachers for Tomorrow courses are eligible to participate. The lab will also employ two students as interns after school through the career and technical education apprenticeship program.

“Our goal is to inspire them to go directly into child care, or go to college and come back and be a teacher for us,” Bouwens said.

“If you have some training in this, you can make a pretty good living running a daycare at home,” he said. Or, a young person might be a candidate to work at one of the handful of existing child care facilities in the county.

Ashley Woodward, who previously taught at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School, will work full-time in the school’s learning lab, with help from two part-time teachers. At all times there will be at least two teachers in the lab with students and preschoolers aged three to five.

Bouwens emphasized that the lab is not a day care as defined by the Commonwealth of Virginia, though it will meet the definition in many respects. The ratio of teacher to children will be one to eight or nine, which compares favorably to the state’s standard of one to 10. The number of preschoolers will be capped at 18, with 16 signed up this year. The curriculum will be similar to what is used in preschool classes at the elementary schools.

The idea for the lab took root after Louisa’s career and technology staff contacted Reece Wilson, a professor of early childhood education at James Madison University, which operates a similar lab staffed by college students. During the past school year’s second semester, Wilson visited Louisa County every week to help plan the policies and procedures, facilities and curricular materials needed to get started.

Bouwens said when he surveyed current Louisa teachers to gauge their interest in the program, 30 of them responded positively. Some said they wished the lab had been available when their children were small. 

“We’ve been very upfront that teachers get first choice” of the available child care slots, Bouwens said. Parents will be charged just enough for the program to cover its expenses. At $400 a month, it’s a real bargain compared to many private-sector daycares.

The schools are partly funding the lab’s start-up with a federal Perkins Grant and support from the Virginia Department of Education, Bouwens said. 

The lab is located next door to the career and technology office on Davis Highway (Rt. 22).