Stacy Ellis—leading Baby Gator to even greater heights

Since its latest location was established at Diamond Village nearly two years ago, the Baby Gator Child Development and Research Centers at the University of Florida are now able to offer high quality care to more than 300 children ages six weeks to five years of age in the UF community.  Stacy Ellis, the centers’ new director, has observed first-hand the organization’s rapid expansion, first throughout her career as a Ph.D. student in the College of Education in the early 2000s, and later when she joined the centers as a teacher, then later as assistant director.

A self-described “ACR,” or Alachua County resident, Stacy was raised in Gainesville, and after a brief time at the University of Alabama, returned to the University of Florida to pursue a bachelor’s in human resources (now Family, Youth and Community Sciences). After graduation, she worked for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Atlanta doing nonprofit work, which she loved.  But before long, UF recruited her to return to pilot a master’s degree program in Family, Youth and Community Sciences.  She was the department’s very first graduate student.

She went on to pursue a Ph.D. in the College of Education’s Curriculum and Instruction program, where she met Pam Pallas, former director of Baby Gator.  The two taught a class together and began talking about Baby Gator’s needs. When Stacy graduated, Pam invited her to join Baby Gator as a teacher, in the hopes she could create an assistant director position, which Ellis assumed the following year, focusing on curriculum resource.

We sat down with Ellis to learn more about her work with Baby Gator and her aspirations for the centers as their newest director.

Why was having an administrator who specialized in “curriculum resource” so important?

When I joined Baby Gator, the teachers did not have anybody other than the director to go to for help with different curriculum ideas, specific teaching strategies, resources and professional development opportunities.  They also didn’t have any help with collecting resources in the community and bringing them to them.  They needed a person focused solely on bringing all of those resources to them.

So I began making relationships with Early Steps, the College of Medicine, Occupational Therapy and Speech Therapy, departments all over campus—meeting the professors, meeting the clinicians and then bringing them in to do trainings for the teachers, to observe individual children and to assist teachers with specific strategies.  At that time, probably 50 percent of my job was focusing on finding resources for teachers and families of children with special needs or those who were showing signs of needing further evaluation.  The rest of my time was spent on curriculum to help the teachers with developing lesson plans, creating quality classroom environments and understanding children’s developmental milestones.

Does Baby Gator have a strong emphasis on children with special needs?

Children with special needs are given priority on our waiting lists.  They have to have a diagnosed disability or delay physically or in a developmental domain.   Whether the disability is behavioral, developmental, sensory processing, or physical – children get priority on our waiting lists if a space opens up.  As soon as a space is available, if it’s a good match for that classroom, the child will be enrolled.

Pam [Pallas, former Baby Gator director] really started that emphasis because her specialty was early childhood special education and was a cause near and dear to her heart.  So it became a culture at Baby Gator and now it’s just what we do.  The teachers love it.  The families love it. I love it because we are able to offer quality early childhood experiences to children who don’t have that opportunity very often.

In addition to accepting children with special needs, we work in partnership and collaboration with the College of Medicine and Early Steps to help identify very young children with red flags for disabilities or delays.   We refer families to Early Steps for those birth-to-age three kids and they often receive services like occupational and speech therapy at Baby Gator.

It’s one of our requests that if an outside provider is available to come to our facility that they come and do the therapies in the classroom because it’s one of the most familiar environments for young children. They’re going to feel the most comfortable in that setting and it is a much better option than being pulled out or going to an office.  When therapy is embedded in the classroom, the teachers watch what the therapists are doing so they can extend the work for the whole week.

What are some other ways Baby Gator distinguishes itself?

Our collaborations on campus and in the community are also something that sets us apart from some of the other childcare facilities in the area as well some of the other campus-based childcare facilities throughout the country.  My focus has really been to get out there to meet people and tell them about Baby Gator, tell them what we have to offer, and let them explain what they have to offer to us in terms of resources.

We also have a dedicated music person—Ms. Anne—who started out with us as a teacher and had a special interest in teaching music to young children.  She’s been with us for 16 years at Baby Gator and has been developing her own music curriculum that we’re getting ready to get published.  She’s worked on it for two years now and it’s amazing.

About five years ago, our associate director, Kelly Jamison, developed our PHITkids program that’s a health and wellness curriculum for young children—healthy living, sun safety, stranger danger, all of those kinds of things rolled into one curriculum.  Kelly implemented it in the classrooms for a few years and now we have students from Health and Human Performance who come and complete a semester-long internship working specifically with the PHITkids program.  During the internship they create and implement new lessons for the children, work with the teachers on developing personal healthy goals, and bring resources to families about health related topics.  It’s been an amazing partnership and that has just grown in the last year and a half.

Who are some of your other partners?

At campus-based children’s centers you hear a lot about their relationships with their college of education, which makes sense: they send their students over for internships and practicums, various research projects.  But when I go around the country, I don’t hear about the depth and breadth of connections that we have developed on our campus with what you would think would be seemingly unrelated departments.

Journalism, for example is another department that we have worked with.  They originally designed our Baby Gator logo—it was one of their senior-level projects. We had so many logos to choose from, which was really amazing. It’s been about 12 years since we did that, so it’s time for our logo to get a revamp.  I think it’s really important for students to have that experience and I will reach out to them again for help on this project.

We had a design and construction student come and do her thesis, working on interior design for a childcare facility, and that’s how she completed her degree program. We also had a senior landscape architecture student go out and design our playgrounds for us as part of his senior project.  And we’ve used a lot of his ideas. Engineering comes out regularly and brings their robots and cars and teaches kids about the importance of STEM.  Even the little babies sit out there and watch the drones and the robots.  It’s pretty cool.

So it’s Baby Gator Child Development and Research Centers.  Where does the research come into play?

A lot of people on campus use us mostly to pilot their research, practice measures, and observe children and teachers.  Forty percent of our assistant director, Joni McReynolds’ job is research coordination.  She spends a huge amount of time coordinating people who come in and use our facility for various things—research projects being a large component.  Mostly these are dissertation pilots for measures people are developing and they need to pilot with children before they send it into a much larger production.  The Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies uses our site for fidelity and reliability checks on a lot of their measures.

We have a faculty member over in the College of Education who’s doing a mini-project right now on training teachers on working with children who are English-language learners, which we have many of because we have such a diverse population.  She’s picked two teachers to work with and they are getting an amazing amount of knowledge from it – and hopefully she will write a paper for publication about her work at Baby Gator.

The occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech language faculty come and bring their master’s students to practice the Denver assessments and other measures they’re going to have to practice in the field.  So there definitely is a large research and clinical component.  Pediatrics and nursing send their students down to do a well-child rotation so that they get the chance to experience how healthy children typically develop.  All of these have been wonderful partnerships that I would like to see grow.

Are there other aspects of Baby Gator’s work that you are especially proud of?

I think another thing that sets us apart is our community involvement.  We partner with Loften High School, which is a technical high school that has an early childhood academy.  Our teachers go over and mentor their high school students on what it’s like to be a preschool teacher, they help them learn how to lesson plan, they help them learn about child development.  But what they do more than anything is they help the students pass their DCF [Department of Children and Family] examinations, which are the basic child development examinations needed to be employed as a child care provider.  If they can come out of high school with that credential, then they are better prepared to go into the field.  Since we’ve been working with them, their pass rates have increased from 60 percent to 98 percent.  It’s amazing.

Gainesville High School has also developed an early childhood education track, so we’re getting ready reach out to them as a community partner.  Pam Pallas and I have provided teacher training for head start in the past.  So we share our knowledge that way too.  And all of our administration makes it a point to answer requests for proposals for early childhood conferences around the United States, so we regularly send teachers and admins around the U.S. to conferences.

What’s your next major goal as director?

Up-to-date technology and digital integration is something we lack.  It’s not always something you think of with early childhood, but that’s the way our society is going and there are so many tools that are available now.  But we are missing that technology component in our classrooms and within our administrative processes—so we are looking into innovative ways to use technology in the classrooms and the offices.

Even more important is our staff.  We are a paper and pencil kind of facility right now.  We have 333 kids who get a paper daily sheet every day.  There is so much technology now to do all of that on an iPad. All of the assessments can be done on an iPad and then the data are tracked for you.  All of the attendance, all of the parent daily reports, all the child portfolios that we do by hand by printing out a picture and putting it in their notebook.  The teachers have been asking for it for a while, but I have to buy 35 iPads, which is very expensive. So we’re launching an iPad “iLove Baby Gator” campaign at the beginning of the year.

We are in also in the process of getting the Newell Drive and Diamond Village facilities accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). It’s a huge process—a five-year process actually—but it will be a feather in our cap and the university’s cap to have all three centers accredited.  In addition to all of that, it’s business as usual with the complexity of daily operations, special events for our families—Thanksgiving feasts and winter holiday programs—and all of the other things that we do.  There’s always a lot going on at Baby Gator, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.