Focusing on the future: NAU celebrates opening of Early Learning and Development Center

Collage of children in the ELDC

Amid the dozens of local dignitaries in suits and the educators standing in the shiny, spacious classroom, one VIP was impossible to miss. The little blond girl in a purple sequined dress, who went up just past the knees of some of the attendees, worked her way through the room, filled with toys, books, art supplies and child-sized tables and chairs, as confidently as if it was built for her.

And in a way, it was.

In fact, it was 5-year-old Harleigh Ezell who, using scissors that were almost as big as she was, cut the ribbon at NAU’s Early Learning and Development Center—with a little help from ELDC director Rebecca Cirzan.

“Harleigh gravitated toward this school setting the moment that she stepped through the door, and for me as a mom, that really reassures me that she feels safe,” said T’anna Ezell, an NAU student majoring criminology and criminal justice who is one of the first to take advantage of the early childhood education offered by NAU’s new center. “My daughter is going to have an opportunity to be somewhere she’s able to learn and she’s able to thrive and play with sand and read a book and go make friends. If Harleigh loves this place, it’s worth your investment.”

T’anna and Harleigh were among the many attendees at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the ELDC, which will provide high-quality early learning for children aged 3-5 years old; the ELDC’s pedagogy will focus on inquiry-based learning, inclusionary practices, and reciprocal relationships with families, demonstrating best practices in early childhood education. On Monday evening, they joined President José Luis Cruz Rivera, Provost Karen Pugliesi, College of Education Dean Ramona Mellott, Flagstaff Major Becky Daggett, FUSD Superintendent Mike Penca, former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, teachers and professors and members of the President’s Cabinet and the NAU community to celebrate the center’s opening. It’s been in process for almost 20 months, but it’s been discussed among NAU leadership for 30 years.

President Cruz Rivera said the center is a fulfillment of a promise that NAU made to its community and the future of its students. He talked about his own experience as a young father—his oldest was born when he was a junior in college.

“There were several moments during my undergraduate educational career when I was this close to dropping out because I didn’t have adequate childcare, and I didn’t have the means to transport myself and my son to the closest childhood development center,” he told the crowd. He remembered walking around the halls with a form to drop out, an interview with Kmart on his calendar. “My trajectory would have been very different if faculty hadn’t been there to help.”

Pugliesi, who has been a part of these discussions for the 30 years, joined the president in thanking all those who helped bring this to fruition and will continue as the center grows.

“This represents to me in many ways how it is we pursue both excellence and equity,” she said. “The early years of development are so important for developing learning capacities and pursuing opportunities without obstacles.”

While she spoke, Harleigh, playing in the kitchen set, solemnly handed cups to Cruz Rivera and General Counsel Michelle Parker, who accepted them with smiles.

See more photos from the event.

When Mellott’s turn came to speak, she remembered her own first pregnancy, which came a month after she arrived at NAU for her first job after graduate school. She was afraid to tell her boss; he was thrilled to hear it, because he thought starting a family here would keep her in Flagstaff.

It may not have been that, she admitted with a laugh, but she’s still here, and she’s spent her entire career working toward a program like the ELDC so student-parents can get the support they need to continue in school. As dean, she said, every report to the president has included a bullet point highlighting the need for this resource. Hiring Victoria Damjanovic, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, to spearhead the project and Cirzan to lead the center built on the president’s ambition and the goals of the last 30 years.

“We have a vision of an exemplary practice,” Cirzan said. “This is not just another childcare or preschool. It is really important that we are setting the bar for what childcare should look like.”

The afternoon ended with Harleigh and Cirzan wielding giant scissors as Cruz Rivera and Pugliesi held the ribbon and the other attendees milled around, exploring the hands-on learning opportunities, taking a peek into the future toddlers room—Cirzan noted a critical need for high-quality infant care as well—and watching the children explore. For President Cruz Rivera, it was a vision of the future—not just for today’s Lumberjacks, but for tomorrow’s.

“The reality is we want to recruit all of these 25 kids to be Lumberjacks,” he said. “We’re going to give students the educational experience of their lifetimes, and they will see no way other than to become Lumberjacks to pursue higher education.”

To learn more and apply for enrollment and scholarships, visit the center’s website.

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications