State license ‘the culmination of a decade-long dream’ for Robinson Center preschool program

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Teacher Meli Bandera from Ameri Corps plays with Ahmed Abdelaziz in the new preschool space at the Robinson Community Learning Center. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

Teacher Meli Bandera from Ameri Corps plays with Ahmed Abdelaziz in the new preschool space at the Robinson Community Learning Center. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

The Robinson Community Learning Center’s early childhood program is now a licensed preschool program in Indiana, allowing it to accept voucher students and participate in the state’s child care quality and rating system as a reference for parents and a pathway to accreditation.

“This is the culmination of a decade-long dream to serve the youngest members of our community in such a high-quality, state-of-the-art learning environment,” said Jennifer Knapp Beudert, manager of the RCLC. “We are so grateful to our Notre Dame and community partners for making our vision a reality.”

The early childhood program was established in 2011 as a companion to the South Bend Community School Corp.’s English as a new language program, which offers English classes at the RCLC for adults, including newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers.

Since then, the program has served children from more than 20 countries speaking more than 15 languages, including Armenian, Vietnamese, Arabic and Urdu.

With this license, it can now serve the entire community, including children of parents who qualify for the federal Child Care and Development Fund Voucher Program, which helps low-income parents obtain child care for work, work-related training or school.

“We’re already starting to get referrals from social workers and people in the community because we’re on the state website as a licensed child care provider,” said Jennifer Wittenbrink Ortega, early childhood program director.

The licensing follows the RCLC’s move to a new facility, complete with an early childhood classroom and outdoor play area, makerspace, black box theater and expanded storage and office space, in June of last year as part of phase II of Eddy Street Commons, the mixed-use development south of campus.

The new classroom is a secure space with its own bathroom and access to an industrial kitchen. There is a sink and child-sized tables, chairs and storage courtesy of Ready to Grow St. Joe and PNC Grow Up Great in the classroom area and child-sized sink and toilet in the bathroom. The outdoor space includes a grassy play area and paved tricycle track.

With ample space and natural light, the classroom is well-suited for play-based, child-centered learning using the nationally recognized HighScope Curriculum, with distinct areas for art, reading, block play and housekeeping.

In its previous location within the former Goodwill store at Eddy and Howard streets — part of an area that is now under development as a Trader Joe’s — the preschool opened onto office space and lacked access to outdoor play areas and an industrial kitchen. It had no windows and exited onto a parking lot.

“It is really incredible having all of the resources we have and all of the space that we want,” Wittenbrink Ortega said of the new building. “It’s just absolutely gorgeous.”

Teachers Meli Bandera and Samantha Musleh (right) from Ameri Corps work with students in the new preschool space at the Robinson Community Learning Center. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
Teachers Meli Bandera and Samantha Musleh (right) from Ameri Corps work with students in the new preschool space at the Robinson Community Learning Center. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

The next step, Wittenbrink Ortega said, is to apply for Paths to Quality, the state’s child care quality and rating improvement system addressing health and safety (level 1), environmental support for children’s learning (level 2), curriculum (level 3) and national accreditation (level 4).

The program is on track for level 3, Wittenbrink Ortega said, with level 4 expected to take an additional year or more.

Like the rest of the RCLC, the early childhood program is operating at reduced capacity and observing strict health protocols because of the coronavirus. Children are screened upon arrival each morning and must wear masks except for snack time. The classroom is fully sanitized at the end of each session.

Teaching the program this year are Meli Bandera and Samantha Musleh, AmeriCorps members from South Bend. Musleh took advantage of time off at the start of the pandemic to earn her certificate in early childhood education.

For more information, visit rclc.nd.edu.

Contact: Erin Blasko, assistant director of media relations, 574-631-4127, eblasko@nd.edu