It’s a cold, icy Monday morning in February. Schools and businesses in Columbia are slowly and sleepily starting to come to life, reluctant to begin the day’s activities. At the Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center, though, the air is thick with excitement and energy as children buzz around the classrooms; there are no Monday morning blues here. The kids are eager to start another of learning, creating and exploring with their peers.
Meg Bartlett, executive director at the Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center, smiles warmly from behind her desk. She’s been an early child educator for more than 40 years and considers children her passion.
“This is not only what I want to do; it’s what I love to do,” Bartlett says.
According to their mission statement, the Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center “is committed to providing high-quality, affordable care and education programs based on the needs of our community.” The center is a 501 nonprofit organization that serves children from 6 weeks of age to 6 years and is a United Way partner agency. As a nonprofit, the center is available to provide quality child care on a sliding fee scale dependent on family income. Currently, 80 percent of the children at the learning center attend at a lower tuition rate. Along with tuition assistance, the center also offers scholarships for families in crises situations.
“Occasionally, since many our families live paycheck to paycheck, sometimes the car breaks down, and you have to make the choice: Does my child go to day care, or do we eat?” Bartlett says. “If we can help them stay in care, we will because we know the longer we have a child in care from birth to kindergarten, the greater our impact is going to be, and there is greater potential for them to be successful when they start kindergarten.”
A history to build on
The Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center was established in 1934 in part of, what Bartlett believes to be, the Work Projects Administration. The Work Projects Administration was the largest New Deal agency and employed millions of people to carry out public works projects. During World War II, many of the men in Columbia were sent away to fight in the war, and women were left having to get jobs. Families needed a day care for their children, so the facility was established, originally named the Ripley Children’s Center.
Since then, the learning center has been moved, remodeled and expanded. In 2008, for its 75th anniversary, the center was renamed from Community Nursery Schools to the Mary Lee Johnston Community Center. Mary Lee Johnston was the executive director at the center for 40 years. Now, Mary Lee’s daughter Grace Johnston Elder serves on the center’s community-based board of directors and is the center’s biggest fan and cheerleader.
“My mother was an educated, classy lady,” Elder says. “She had the biggest heart, especially for the single mamas who were trying to better themselves but didn’t have the income. She wanted to make it possible for as many little ones who needed a safe and loving place to have one.”
The center, now located on Hinkson Avenue, consists of three buildings that include two infant rooms, two toddler rooms, two 2- and 3-year-old rooms and two preschool rooms. It has the capacity to serve a total of 88 children and currently has 84 children attending, with a staff of 24 people. The center is serious about not only providing affordable care for Columbia children but also high-quality care. The center is an Advanced Level Eat Smart Program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Program. By providing quality movement activities, the center is also considered a Missouri Moves site.
According to Bartlett, there are two main elements in the programs that the learning center provides. First, the center uses a High Scope curriculum model, which focuses on the components needed to create a rich environment for learning, including active participation learning, adult-child interactions, following daily routines and ongoing assessment. Secondly, the center follows the Positive Behavior Support system, which assists children in developing social skills and gaining personal self-regulation skills.
Bartlett says the center provides a predictable pattern so the children know what to expect in their day, but they also leave time for them to explore. Also, the center is flexible in what room children are in and does not base it solely off age.
“Some children at 10 months are ready to move to a higher level classroom; some children may not be ready until 16 months, and that’s OK,” Bartlett says. “When their ready to move, we’ll move them, so we keep them challenged and moving forward.”
Funding and the future
The Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center is largely funded by its partnership with United Way, other grants, individual donations and support from other organizations. Last year, though, the learning center had to dip into its reserve funds due to cuts in funding in many areas.
“I think economically we are in a teetering place, just nationally,” Bartlett says. “I don’t think people are feeling as secure as they were years ago. Therefore, donations are down. I have a wonderful board, and they recognize the situation that we’re in, so basically the board’s challenge now is to find ways to make up those deficits so we can be successful. We just celebrated 80 years, so let’s have another 80.”
Elder, who works with fundraising on the board, remembers that when her mother was the executive director at the center, the job was a family affair. That is still true today, with Elder, her two brothers, sister, husband and nephew all working together in fundraising efforts.
One fundraising event that usually takes place in the fall is particularly special to Elder because it takes place at the Johnston Paint & Decorating store, her family’s other legacy, and she receives overwhelming support from her family and the community. Chairs and Chests for Children focuses on repurposing donated furniture and features a live auction for some of the larger items and donated gift certificates.
Elder is confident that the Mary Lee Johnston Community Learning Center will continue to thrive as they apply for more grants, come up with more fundraising ideas and because of the generous nature of Columbia’s residents in general.
“This community is so generous, it’s amazing to me,” Elder says. “A lot of people who remember my mother and father tell me, ‘You’re mother would be so proud.’”