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First Environments celebrates 30-year partnership with NIEHS
This year, staff, parents, friends, and graduates celebrate the 1986 founding of the First Environments Early Learning Center.
By Eddy Ball
For many employees and contractors at NIEHS, quality onsite day care helps families with young children pursue productive careers in science and other aspects of the NIEHS program. This year, staff, parents, friends, and graduates will celebrate the 1986 founding of the First Environments Early Learning Center as a parent cooperative.
For the 30 years since it opened, First Environments has maintained strong partnerships with NIEHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through working agreements with both agencies. First Environments was the first workplace program of its type in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and it remains the most highly accredited day care program in the park, and one of the top programs in the nation.
Executive Director Elizabeth Lake, who has served in her position since 1992, readily acknowledged the importance of NIEHS support to the program’s long list of accomplishments. “We could never do this without the sponsorship of NIEHS and EPA,” she said.
Turning a dream into a reality
Interested employees gathered on February 6, 1986 to learn about plans for the facility, which was scheduled to open that fall with space for 78 children. Prominent among leaders of the childcare center movement was Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., parents’ association president. Since her time as an NIEHS fellow, she has pursued a highly successful career as a molecular toxicologist and grantee.
Although parents, especially mothers eager to continue in scientific careers, almost certainly discussed the issues of career and family balance prior to 1986, it was only in 1980 that efforts by the Federal Women’s Program documented interest in a workplace day care center. The program surveyed employees at NIEHS, EPA, and the Research Triangle Institute (now RTI), to gather their input.
In February 1986, the Environmental Factor reported the announcement of plans by the Research Triangle Foundation to construct a building on the NIEHS North Campus, the institute’s location for 16 years. The foundation would lease space to NIEHS and EPA.
In October 1986, First Environments held a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new building, which was completed in 60 days by a local contractor. The featured speaker was North Carolina Secretary of Human Resources Phillip Kirk. NIEHS representatives delivering remarks included Executive Officer Charles Leasure; Director David Rall, M.D., Ph.D.; and Walker, who joined EPA management at the podium. As part of a long tradition of family support, parent volunteers, led by Charles Butterick, constructed playground equipment for the new facility.
(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)
Measuring quality in day care
First Environments enrolls children 6 weeks to 5 years old. Teacher-to-child ratios range from 1-to-4 for the two youngest groups, to 1-to-10 for prekindergarten. The program is based on well-defined objectives for the different needs of each age group and includes play, exploration, and participation in a variety of group and individual activities.
The program is rated a five-star program by the State of North Carolina — the highest possible rating. In 1993, the first year of Lake’s tenure as executive director, the program achieved accreditation with a perfect rating from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the gold standard for early childhood programs across the country.
Most staff members hold bachelor degrees in education and child development, or a Child Development Association Credential, and take annual in-service training. Staff members also participate in national conferences on child care and environmental education. “We’ve managed to stabilize the staff,” Lake said “Retention is a top priority, and we have at least 15 people who have been here more than 15 years.” Office manager Kim Graper, who came to the program in 1991, is the longest serving member of the team.
Parents and students feel strong loyalties to the center and its veteran teachers. A number of families have sent two or more of their children to the day care. Students often return to volunteer, intern, or even join the center’s staff.
Parent involvement is key to program quality and the overall atmosphere at the center. “The dedication that parents have had has been a huge motivation for me,” Lake said as she reflected on her 24 years at the helm.
In 2012, a long-term family donated $5,000, matched by a major pharmaceutical company, for a needs-based scholarship program. Contributions by other families have added to the endowment.
First Environments has also served as a model for other organizations and corporations in RTP — a sign of its superior ranking in child care. These include IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, and RTI, who modeled a building after First Environment’s green facility.
In 2004, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Emeritus Ken Olden, Ph.D., visited the center for some quality time with the children. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
When Lake became director, she steered the program to even higher standards for staff, and to national accreditation. (Photo courtesy of Michael Garske)
Sustainability and family at the heart of an exceptional program
From the outset, First Environments based its mission on environmental education and sustainability. Visitors to the facility, which relocated to a new home on the NIEHS and EPA campus in 2005, are impressed with the program’s ties to natural learning, recycling programs, and green practices, which include solar power and rainwater collection. The children grow much of the food consumed by First Environments students and staff.
One of the program’s requirements is volunteer participation by parents, who also make up a five-member board of directors. Parents are encouraged to visit during the school day. Because of the center’s proximity to NIEHS and EPA, it’s not unusual to see parents in the classrooms or hallways, or eating lunch with their children.