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New innovative preschool puts years of theorum to practice

From left: Center of Gravity preschool lead teacher Demetria Williams, executive director Michelle Grant-Groves, Center director Katherine Brehob, and master teacher Whitney Lee. (HARRY WHO PHOTOGRAPHY / Courtesy)
From left: Center of Gravity preschool lead teacher Demetria Williams, executive director Michelle Grant-Groves, Center director Katherine Brehob, and master teacher Whitney Lee. (HARRY WHO PHOTOGRAPHY / Courtesy)

By E. CLARK
Martinez Tribune

There’s a new preschool in town, but it’s not your typical print-rich, rainbow festooned, “plop your kids down while you work” setup. In fact, there’s nary a Barbie or Tonka Truck in sight.

No, the new Center of Gravity early education school on the Martinez-Pleasant Hill border is an entirely different animal, as anyone can see upon entering. The colors and textures of the interior are soft and neutral. The chairs aren’t bright pink, red or blue plastic, but rather miniature versions of adult furniture, made of natural wood and fabrics. The toys – or rather tools, as executive director Michele Grant-Groves prefers to call them – are made up of dye-free wooden blocks and arches, sand play stations, tubes and other materials designed to encourage children to build, create and experiment as they play. Lacking is the sense of busyness and over-stimulation one might find at an archetypal preschool.

That’s one reason why Grant-Groves, her husband Bobby and their partners in business call the preschool a lab school – one centered on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

But how do you teach children ages 2-6 STEM subjects?

“It’s what kids are doing when they play,” Grant-Groves said. “They’re exploring, experimenting, prototyping, looking and observing. It’s not that letters, numbers, shapes and colors aren’t important, but that’s low-level learning. The kids pick up on those in a blink. What we focus on is complex learning, especially getting them up and going for Next Generation Science Standards.”

Those standards are defined by Common Core, an educational initiative that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. The Science Standards specifically call for learning rich in content and practice. And that’s where Center of Gravity comes in.

The Center has a host of credentialed teachers that specialize in early childhood education. These educators perform observation-based formative assessments on each child in their care, helping to foster the children both cognitively and emotionally.

“We have such a phenomenal academic team. We look at the constellation of what’s happening with the children and adjust our curriculum accordingly,” Grant-Groves said.

And though it may sound quite lab-like, there seems to be no shortage of comfort and fun at the Center. In addition to play tools reminiscent of those found at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the children also have access to iPads and other technology they can use in their learning. One upcoming activity is a photo journalism class where the children will choose and talk about their photography and subjects, shoot a series of photos and videos, and share and converse about their favorite digital stories.

“This is a heart project,” Grant-Groves said. “We really believe this makes a difference.”

After spending 25 years in the field of early childhood education, an associate of Grant-Groves encouraged her to open the school.

“She said, ‘Girl, what are you waiting for? It’s time to do your own thing, start applying all that theory, and show people what this (advanced early education model) looks like from top to bottom,’” Grant-Groves said. She said she began calling her friends in education research as well as vendors she knew, asking them to listen to her “crazy idea” to open a center.

“They said, ‘Not only do we think it’s not crazy, we’re going to help you do this,’” she said. Then a rental property that formerly housed a preschool was found, and with the help of friends, associates, vendors and area education professionals, the project was born.

The lab school, located at 2702 Pleasant Hill Road, opened the first week of June and now collaborates with the Center for Play Research at Mills College, Be Love Farm, Kodo Kids and the i3 Institute of Martinez – all working to cultivate excellent early education, creativity and health in our “centers of gravity,” our children.

The school is open to all children ages 2.9-5.5, and also has a full day infant/toddler program for those ages 6 months to 2.9 years. There’s also space available for children of families with mixed- and low-income, as well as children in need of Individualized Education Programs or special education.

The Center will also host a monthly farmers market and makers faire, and offer what they call community learning labs featuring workshops for children and a monthly expert speaker series.

For more information or to enroll, visit www.centerofgravityece.org.

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