Building a Firm Foundation: Setting the Right Course in Early Learning in Fairfield

Story and photos by Catherine Pittman Smith

Remember preschool? The memories just come flooding back don’t they? Morning roll call, handprints in paint, swinging on the playground, story time, planting seeds in plastic cups and watching them grow, and, oh the favorite… snack time in those itty-bitty chairs. Preschool is a time of fun, wonder and excitement…yet a very crucial stage in our development.

Preschool learning is at the core of what and how we learn, not just in school but in life. It lays the foundation of learning; it paves the way for opportunities, and it sets the wheels in motion. Foundations Early Learning & Family Center, a Christ-centered preschool located in Fairfield, AL, believes that all children should have access to a quality pre-K education. And because of the incredible vision of Mountain Brook resident, Dr. Tanja Malone, Foundations is doing just that.

While attaining her PhD in child psychology in 2010, Malone was working with child/family advocacy agencies in Fairfield and quickly discerned that children in the crucial age group of birth to four-years-old were not being targeted in providing the necessary foundation to achieve school readiness. It also became evident that no agency was directly working with the parents of these children to assist them with their children’s education.

Most children are born healthy and ready to learn. However, without proper interactions and stimulations, developmental delays can emerge as early as six months of age, and multiple delays can be seen at age three. According to Zero to Three Policy Center, “During the first three years of life, children rapidly develop foundational capabilities – cognitive, social and emotional – on which subsequent development builds. These years are even more important for infants and toddlers (who may be at risk).”

Research shows that with high-quality preschool programing, coupled with healthcare and parent involvement, different outcomes are possible. According to the Alabama Office of School Readiness, students who receive early-learning services are less likely to repeat a grade, require remedial education or be placed in special education. They score higher on achievement tests, are more likely to graduate and go on to college and get higher paying salaries.

Dr. Malone and her husband, John, formed a board of directors in 2011 to begin developing a program that would foster school readiness through quality preschool programing and parent involvement in a Christ-centered environment.

According to Malone, “We worked with organizations such as Child Care Resources, Harris Early Learning Center, PreSchool Partners, Fairfield City Schools, Better Basics, UAB, Hope Health Center and Restoration Academy (RA) to help us develop the structure for our program.” The board intentionally chose to serve Fairfield because of the number of at-risk families and the lack of services.

In 2013, Foundations Early Learning & Family Center was incorporated, received its 501c (3) status and opened its doors at Restoration Academy in Fairfield. They began with one 4K class and an after-school care program. Two years later, in the 2015-16 school year, Foundations moved to the Forest Hills Community Development Center and added another 4K class and a 3K class. Since its inception, Foundations has worked with over 300 children and their families providing a quality preschool education, free health-care screenings, after-school care and a strong parent involvement/enrichment program.

“Foundations Early Learning & Family Center isn’t just any preschool,” says Mary Jo Kynerd, Head of School, “Foundations truly sets itself apart. Our programs aim to prevent developmental delays and reverse adverse trends. We combine the best-known practices in early childhood education with the love and grace of Christ.” She emphasizes, “The parent involvement component of our program is crucial.” The Parent Involvement Meeting (PIM) program was set up to be responsive to parent needs by addressing topics such as parent-child relationships, managing finances, health and wellness, and preparation for kindergarten. “Coming alongside parents to equip them to best facilitate their children’s development and education is at the heart of our mission,” says Kynerd.

Sarah Davis, 4K mom and volunteer, says: “Foundations has a clear understanding for the needs of parents and children, and they are using researched and practical interventions to improve our family structure in Fairfield. The teachers and staff exemplify what it means to have a servant heart. They faithfully and prayerfully help the children and parents grow into the best versions of themselves.”

Another key component that supports the mission at Foundations and makes it shine is the volunteer program. According to Catherine Pittman Smith, former Communications & Development Director and Volunteer Coordinator, “Foundations is blessed by such diverse, passionate and dedicated volunteers of all ages. They volunteer in our classrooms, After-School Care (ASC) program and at our bi-weekly parent Involvement Meetings.” Volunteers come from Crestline, Vestavia, Hoover, and various churches, such as the Cathedral Church of the Advent and Briarwood Presbyterian Church.

Kelley Norwood and her family have been actively engaged at Foundations for several years. According to Smith, “Their investment of both time and gifts has been done with great intentionality and with servant hearts. Not just through giving but through connection and relationship.” Norwood brings her 4th grade son and six other friends once a month to play with the ASC children. She says, “Planting and nurturing seeds about relationship, stewardship and service in our children is a priority. It is our hope that our family’s involvement and investment are making a difference – a real impact! I know it is making an impact on us.”

Foundations is invested in the children, their families and the Fairfield community as a whole. Kynerd concludes: “Partnered with other Fairfield ministries, we have a vision for this community to thrive again – educationally, economically, socially and spiritually, and what we are doing here at Foundations, will hopefully play an integral part in that. It takes a team to raise up a new generation, and Foundations is providing that firm foundation on which to build.”

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