Support from the Start: Pre-Kindergarten Preparation at the West Haven Child Development Center

With activities involving communication, problem solving, and social development, the West Haven Childhood Development Center has been preparing young children for kindergarten, involving parents and caregivers every step of the way.

Making music program at West Haven Child Development Center
Jazz artist Lee Mixashawn Rozie leads the 2023 "Make Music Day" family event. Photo: WHCDC Staff

When the West Haven Child Development Center (WHCDC) opened in 1978, it had two pre-school classrooms and 30 students. As childcare demands grew, along with new measurement standards and a heightened focus on social and emotional development, so did the organization. Today, the center serves more than 130 children from birth to kindergarten, and includes an infant program, an Early Head Start program that serves children under age three, and additional services delivered through community partners, including the West Haven Board of Education.

Many families pay on a sliding fee scale or through subsidies, which places financial pressures on the organization. Support from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven (CFGNH) has helped alleviate some of these pressures and strengthen programming at the center. Recent CFGNH grants have funded general operations and helped the completion of a new playground, and the hiring of a nurse and social workers.

“We want our [toddlers] to be socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically ready for kindergarten,” says Executive Director Patrice Farquharson, who has worked at the center since shortly after its founding.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, Farquharson says that the center has seen a significant increase in the number of children needing social and emotional development services.

“With COVID, they haven’t socialized, and getting to be with their peers is important,” she says.

The center also focuses on building emergent literacy skills, an important factor in determining education success. Research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that a child’s reading ability level by third grade is one of the most critical determinants of success in high school and beyond. Data shows that students who struggle with reading by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Toddler picks peas at West Haven Child Development Center
A toddler picks peas at WHCDC, which serves more than 130 children from infants through preschool. Photo: WCDC staff

Low literacy levels are more likely to be found among low-income families. More than 8 in 10 (83%) financially disadvantaged students nationally score below third grade proficiency levels, according to the National Head Start Association, and poverty disproportionately affects Black, Latine and Native American families. West Haven Children’s Development Center, through its Early Head Start preschool program, is helping address these challenges. Nationally, low-income participants in Head Start programs are 12% less likely to live in poverty and 29% less likely to need to receive public assistance.

Farquharson says her organization tracks and measures age-appropriate development skills — including communication, problem solving, fine motor skills and social development — in order to continually assess students’ progress. Parent engagement is also a critical component of early childhood success, and WHCDC uses different approaches to keep parents involved, including home visits, parent/teacher meetings and an Early Head Start Parent Council.

“We like to have the parents’ perspectives, learn about the home environment, and set goals for their children,” Farquharson says.

The center also uses technology and social media pages to connect parents with classrooms and to help students share important parts of their day.

“We have a program called ‘Message from Me,’ when children get to choose to take a picture of an activity that gets emailed or texted to their parents,” Farquharson says. “It’s a great way to keep parents connected and gives them something concrete at school to talk about with their children.”

WHCDC also engages and partners with other local organizations like West Haven Mental Health, which helps toddlers needing socialization skills, and Massaro Farm in Woodbridge, CT.

“The children have an opportunity to get produce, and we give recipes to parents and encourage them to do their own home gardens,” Farquharson said.

Four decades into her career, much has changed about preschool education and her center, but not Farquharson’s mission.

“It’s important that I stayed here and helped the children in my community.”