Marlin Newell of the Children’s Center— 25 years of hugs from our children
- Published: June 12, 2014
Marlin Newell has been at the Yellow Springs Community Children’s Center for long enough that the toddlers she potty-trained and taught to walk are now returning to enroll their own children.
Since Newell loves the children in her care as if they were her own, this recent development is like having a “new grandbaby,” she said this week. And while that close relationship is hard when the children grow up, graduate and move on, it is ultimately what makes the center so unique.
“I’ve had hundreds of parents say, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do,’” Newell said. “But we take every one of those kids into our hearts like they’re our kids.”
This week the 64-year-old Springfield resident celebrated a major milestone. It was 25 years ago that Newell started at the local nonprofit center — which has daycare, preschool, after-school and summer programs — first as a substitute, then as a teacher’s aide and long-time toddler teacher. For the last seven years, she has been the center’s director.
Reflecting on her time at the Children’s Center, Newell said she worked to improve the center’s education standards and hire more qualified teachers and keep low student-teacher ratios. And she helped the center retain its home-like environment, child-directed learning approach and commitment to accommodating low-income families, which Newell said are the “people who need you the most.”
“It’s very important that these parents are able to go to work and that they’re able to have a safe place for their children to learn and to grow,” Newell said, adding that tuition costs at the center are below the 50th percentile in Ohio while unlike other daycares, the Children’s Center doesn’t limit the number of families on assistance it accepts.
But with enrollment down 40 percent in two years, Newell is worried about the future of the venerable local institution, which was founded by Arthur and Lucy Morgan in 1948 as just the second such facility in Ohio. Fewer children are entering its programs — for 18-month-olds to 12-year-olds — which Newell attributes in part to a slow economy as poor local job prospects drive young families out of town or compel more parents to stay at home.
Another reason for the decline is that the center has developed a negative local reputation from what Newell called rumors that children spend all day watching television and “just playing.” Marlin defended the education at the Children’s Center, saying that not only does the center meet the Step Up to Quality state standards for curriculum, but “every minute of the day is a learning experience at the Children’s Center.”
“People say, ‘Oh look that’s so sweet they’re playing.’ They are playing but that is how they learn. That’s not something everyone understands,” Newell said. Videos are reserved for once per week for school-age children, less for preschoolers and seldom for toddlers, she added. And student-teacher ratios are lower than the Step Up to Quality state standards to ensure that children are getting plenty of one-on-one teaching, she said.
Enrolling the center in the Step Up to Quality Program, focusing on project-based learning well before it was adopted by Yellow Springs schools and taking over the Mills Lawn After School Program in collaboration with the school have been a few of Newell’s most significant accomplishments during her tenure as director. Newell took over as director from MJ Richlen. Previous directors included Kathy Moore and Diane Foubert.
Most children enrolled at the center are from Yellow Springs, but children also attend from Springfield, Xenia, Fairborn, Beavercreek and other towns.
For Newell, the work has delivered its own rewards — “I get hugs every day. You can’t get that in the business world,” she says — but she never envisioned that she would work in daycare. She started by taking care of just one child from her home in Circleville when her kids were little, then grew to have an at-home childcare program with six kids, and now is responsible for several hundred children at the Children’s Center. Before applying at the center, she had never been in a daycare classroom.
Newell looks at her time at the Children’s Center as some of the best years of her life, especially the 15 years she spent as the toddler teacher, teaching kids how to talk, walk and get along with others. Her favorite times were chatting up kids while they pooped, which is when Newell found them the most talkative.
“I like all ages but the babies are just so fresh and new,” Newell said of teaching toddlers. “You spend so much time with them, sometimes up to eight and ten hours per day, that the little ones will actually call you mama or mommy.”
And it’s not just the children that the center’s dozen teachers and staff accept as their own. Newell also says that the Children’s Center “adopts every family that comes in here.” Newell says that sometimes she’ll have a child crying on one shoulder and a parent crying on another shoulder and that much of her work involves helping parents feel at ease about entrusting their children to the center.
“Parents want to know that their child is safe and well cared for and we love them,” Newell said.
At other times, Newell helps parents access social services and children find additional support for developmental or behavioral problems. Once, Newell found out a parent had run out of food to feed her children over the weekend, and went out and bought $80 worth of groceries to tide them over. She’s helped provide kids, and adults, winter clothes and other necessities thanks to generous donations from the Yellow Springs community, she said.
But it hasn’t all been easy for Newell. Dealing with the myriad of government agencies for licensure and subsidies and constantly fundraising to keep the center nonprofit have been challenging. While some funding sources are drying up in the current economic climate in general, the need to support children is undervalued and many daycare center teachers are not respected, Newell said.
Newell added that there is a mindset that the Children’s Center is “just a daycare” when at the heart of its work is child development.
“The research is starting to show that birth to six years is the most important learning time in your life,” Newell said. “There is a lack of knowledge for what goes on here — this isn’t just a daycare.”
To raise money locally, the center, which will no longer organize its 5K fundraiser, is planning to reprise its successful community garage sale and organize a community scavenger hunt in September, Newell said. But her long-term hope is for more government subsidies for childcare so “it’s not such a drain on anyone’s finances.”
Much has changed at the center over the last 25 years, and mostly for the best, Newell said. When she arrived teachers were hired without education degrees; now the center hires trained teachers and also uses its own money and state grants to help its employees go to school.
Teachers used to “do whatever they want,” but today must follow a curriculum that includes benchmarks for emotional and social development, fine and gross motor skills, literacy, science and math skills and other areas. At the same time, teachers still can decide what students learn about and many often start out the school year interviewing students about their interests.
Something that hasn’t changed much since Newell arrived is the center’s 1970s-era building, which has had renovations to its roof and floors but still needs improvement, Newell said. Her vision for the center is to build a new facility — a “true community children’s center” — that would provide space for “collaborations with everyone else in town working with children,” she said. The Montessori Preschool now operating out of the First Presbyterian Church could have its own classroom; YSKP could hold workshops and rehearsals in a performance space; a gymnasium could provide space for children to run around.
Every once in a while, the staff at the Children’s Center pools its money to buy a lottery ticket, with an agreement that the first $1 million would go towards building a new Children’s Center facility. Even though Newell said she loves to think about her “dream center,” even in its current facility the Children’s Center is a cut above the rest.
“Other places might have a nicer facility than we do but I don’t think they can beat us for the love, care and education we can give here.”