University breaks ground on $7.8M project; Fall 2019 targeted for completion
By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The mission of the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s new Early Childhood Education Center was best described by a group of young children who performed during Friday morning’s groundbreaking ceremony.
The children, dressed in blue “Little Lopers” shirts, sang “Together We Can Change the World.”
“That is what our future is all about,” UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen said.
Friday’s event, attended by nearly 200 people, celebrated a facility that will transform early childhood education and instruction across the state and impact the lives of Nebraskans for generations to come.
“I believe I do not overstate the significance and the prominence of this new Early Childhood Education Center in becoming a model for the best childhood education centers in the country,” Kristensen said. “Kearney will be a destination for planners of early educational programs throughout the country and a place where undergraduate and graduate students want to learn to become our best teachers.”The LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center is more than a building, according to Kristensen. It’s an investment in the state’s future.
Kristensen called the $7.8 million, 19,900-square-foot building the state’s most innovative center of early childhood excellence, a facility that will serve local families, UNK students and faculty, and communities across the state by preparing caring and highly qualified educators to enter the workforce.
“Our students will have the best place to learn, from the best faculty, and in the best environment,” Kristensen said.
The center, named after LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck of Omaha, a longtime advocate for early childhood education, is the first academic building at UNK’s University Village, a 104-acre development just south of U.S. Highway 30 that also includes the recently opened Village Flats residence hall.
It will be a space for children to learn and grow in a setting that utilizes three research-based philosophies for early childhood education – eclectic, Montessori and project-based. The center can serve up to 176 children, from infants to age 6, more than doubling the capacity of the existing UNK Child Development Center housed in the Otto C. Olsen building, which is being replaced by three separate projects.
TRAINING GROUND FOR EDUCATORS
The Early Childhood Education Center, designed specifically to meet children’s needs, will serve the families of UNK students, staff and faculty, with any remaining spots offered to the public.The facility will also address the state’s shortage of early childhood educators by providing academic opportunities that are unmatched in Nebraska.
“Academically, we will engage in unprecedented interdisciplinary collaborations between faculty and staff from across our three colleges to best serve children and enhance the education of our already excellent early childhood education and elementary education majors,” Kristensen said.
UNK’s early childhood education program, among the largest in the state with more than 260 majors, has a strong reputation that will be enhanced by the new facility, which is expected to open in fall 2019.
Students will have numerous professional development and experiential learning opportunities, including hands-on training, practicums, internships, observations, student teaching, diagnostic testing and undergraduate and graduate research.
“This is an incredible step forward in delivering a high-quality education for our students,” said Sheryl Feinstein, dean of UNK’s College of Education. “We know best practice is to get students working with young children, and this allows us to do that.”
In addition to benefiting early childhood and elementary education students, the center will allow for more collaborations with programs such as communication disorders, physical and special education, family studies, psychology and social work, as well as the University of Nebraska Medical Center. By opening the doors to the community, the center will serve a more diverse group of children and give UNK students a chance to work with families from different backgrounds.
“It’s really going to be a microcosm of the world we live in,” Feinstein said. “That will provide a very rich experience for our students.”
A financial gift from Plambeck added two dedicated Montessori classrooms to the Early Childhood Education Center, as well as an endowed Montessori education professorship and endowed fund that will support workshops, seminars and other outreach activities for early childhood education providers across Nebraska. The facility will also advance and create new partnerships at the community, state and national levels.
“This will be the first early education Montessori program in the country from a public university,” said Plambeck, who called early childhood the “most critical learning period.”
“You must have the proper environment for early education,” she said.
Inspired by the Montessori teaching method, based on a philosophy that puts much of the responsibility and freedom for learning within a child’s control, Plambeck opened Omaha’s first Montessori Educational Center in 1968 and later added seven locations and opened schools in Denver and Fort Worth, Texas. She launched the Mid-America Montessori Teacher Training Institute to provide professionals with training and certification and has worked extensively on early childhood education with UNK and other institutions.
Plambeck said her goal is turn UNK into the “Harvard of early childhood education,” allowing more children to reach their fullest potential.
Kristensen praised Plambeck for her dedication to children and early education, calling her an “unstoppable force of determination.”
“She has and will continue to make a profound difference in the lives of children,” Kristensen said. “Because of her vision and shared commitment to his project, she will make an equally profound difference in the lives of educators who will become experts in early childhood education.”