April 25, 2023

Authentic Community: A Q&A with Elise Harlow, Vice President of Community Development

For many families, preschools and childcare centers are the heartbeat of their community. It’s the place where parents first learn how to let their kids have a life outside of the home, where moms and dads can seek advice from one another, and where kids and adults alike make friendships that can last a lifetime. In a very real sense, these schools help build the foundation for a child’s life.  

What responsibilities do Center Directors have in cultivating communities? How do educators make childcare centers healthy, happy, and inclusive? How do we ensure our community thrives?

For answers to these questions and more we sat down with Elise Harlow, Vice President of Community Development at Early Learning Academies.

What does community mean to you?

Community is a feeling of familiarity, support, and kindness. Community is a place where people take on roles and rely on one another.

Why is it important for childcare providers to cultivate a culture of community?

Taking care of and educating children is a community endeavor. In fact, a community cannot thrive if there is not a safe, warm, and joyful place for its children to learn and socialize while their parents are at work. The phrase “it takes a village” has such staying power because it is true.

Our teachers are supportive partners for our parents. Many of our teachers have children who attend the center in which they teach, and some teachers even attended our programs when they were children themselves. Many ELA centers have local partnerships with programs that bring experts in to expose children to different athletics, cultures, and hobbies.

We cultivate community through community service efforts throughout the year, especially in the months of November and December which this past year we called the “Season of Giving,” and by creating fun, themed months for everyone to join in exploring a topic such as bees, the moon, and gratitude. Childcare providers are core members of any community; our work isn’t so much cultivating a culture of community as doing the work of recognizing, participating in, and nourishing the community that already exists.

What does community mean in a workplace?

Community in a workplace is measured by how coworkers help one another when in need. We’ve experienced loss as a community, natural disasters, navigating through the pandemic (and its lingering effects like childcare staffing shortage). It’s not always easy but being in tune with how your community members are doing overall and what they might be going through personally helps us support individuals when they need some extra kindness. The willingness of so many of our leaders and teachers to continue to serve our families and each other through tough times is what has molded us into a broader ELA community.

Are there any suggestions you could give to a Center Director trying to boost a sense of community within their center?

A Center Director is the heart of the childcare center community, but that doesn’t mean they are solely responsible for engaging with their community. Center Directors can best tap into the magic of their communities by listening to their teachers and families, being open-minded and willing to try different events or activities, and paying attention to what lights up the community.

By listening to what teachers and families are up to, you can learn about cool places in the community that the center could potentially partner with, hear about events happening, discover great causes and fundraisers, and participate in community endeavors that are already happening. We’ve had teams volunteer at local events such as beach clean-ups and farmers markets that they did not organize but were able to be a part of. Being willing to try different community engagement activities leads to finding out what lights the community up, is it a food truck outside the center at the time of parent pick up, honey tasting event during our Bee Month, events centered around a love of books and reading, or hosting a grandparent’s day? You’ll only know once you try, and you have so much opportunity to bring your community joy and lasting memories!