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Aillevrah Turner, pictured at left with baby Cicily, was named director of the Yellow Springs Community Children’s Center in December. She is pictured in the school’s infant room, where she began her tenure as the lead teacher in 2018. (Photo by Lauren “Chuck” Shows)

Turner steps into director role at YSCCC

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From the moment a child is born, they’re learning — and according to new YS Community Children’s Center Director Aillevrah Turner, some of a child’s most important education happens before they head to their first day of kindergarten.

“Parents are really the first teachers — but I’ve always seen the benefit in being there at the beginning of a child’s education and having an impact,” Turner told the News in an interview this week.

A Columbus native now living in Springfield, Turner has been part of the staff of the Children’s Center since 2018, and replaces former director Dana Zackey after serving as Zackey’s assistant director since last summer. Turner became interim director in October before being officially named director in December.

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“She really knows everything about the center,” Lynn Sontag, who is president of the Children’s Center’s board of directors, said in a phone interview this week. “One of the reasons we chose her is she was a teacher, and it’s a super important facet for a director — you need to understand what the teachers are doing, what they’re up against and what their whole day looks like in order to support them.”

Sontag added that Turner is “very serious” about continuing to grow and support the Children’s Center — a perspective that Turner supported when speaking to the News. Her goal as an educator at the center, Turner said, has been to treat young children seriously. Learning through play is crucial for developing young minds, and she and her fellow educators have worked to infuse that play with literary, scientific, mathematical and social-emotional concepts.

“What we’re doing here is not just babysitting — we are educating,” she said. “The activities we set up are intentional so that [the students] get something out of their play, and at the end of the day, maybe they don’t even realize it, but that’s how they learn.”

In her new role as director, Turner added, her main goal is to continue to support her staff in establishing those foundational educational notions.

“I want to equip our teachers with the skills they need to send [students] out into the world as capable little people who can work through their emotions, set boundaries and use their voices,” she said.

Turner’s own connection to early childhood education began when she was herself a child: She was one of the oldest children in her church community while growing up in Columbus, and found herself taking the younger kids in the congregation under her wing. She also attended a K–12 school that encouraged older students to work with younger ones. In addition, a close family friend who worked at a daycare — and had been Turner’s own babysitter — would sometimes bring the young Turner along.

“And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, you get to be with babies all day? This is what you do?’” Turner said. “That’s really where I found my passion for childcare — just being around babies.”

After graduating from high school in 2010, Turner initially began studying elementary education at Cedarville University. Though she knew she wanted to work with kids, as she studied at Cedarville, she began to question in what capacity she wanted to pursue that work. She decided to take a year off from school, and during that year, she worked in a daycare.

“I worked with infants, toddlers and preschoolers, and saw how they were impacted [educationally] before they ever set foot in a school building,” she said.

After that year, Turner enrolled at Wilberforce University. Though she knew from her year in the daycare that she wanted to focus on early childhood education, the school at that time didn’t offer a program in that field; in 2016, she earned her degree in psychology, with a focus in child psychology.

While earning her degree at Wilberforce, Turner began working at Creative World of Learning, a Montessori-based early childhood education center in Fairborn. While there, she worked closely with Malissa Doster, who served as the school’s operations manager; Doster later became the director of the Children’s Center in 2017.

The following year, Doster told Turner that she was opening a new infants room at the Children’s Center, and asked if she’d consider becoming the classroom’s lead teacher. Turner said she was intrigued by the Children’s Center’s long history and nonprofit status.

“I thought, ‘This would be a good opportunity to really impact the community,’” Turner said.

Though Doster left the Children’s Center last summer and now lives in Pennsylvania, Turner said the former director has continued to mentor her as she settles into her new role. She attributed much of what she loves about the Children’s Center to the lasting impressions Doster made during her time at the school, from expanding class and enrichment offerings, to helping the center earn a five-star rating from the Ohio Department of Education.

“She’s still available and she helps out a lot,” Turner said. “She’s rooting for us from afar, and I want to continue what she started.”

To that end, Turner said she wants to ensure that all of the educators who work at the Children’s Center are engaged and supported by their new director. She said she relies on positive reinforcement and open communication with her staff in frequent classroom observations, and hopes to expand the community they’ve built.

“I tell them every day that what we are doing here is really changing [the students’] lives, so I’m interested in growing our team of teachers,” Turner said.

Part of that growth, she hopes, will come from within: Turner and the school’s board of directors are currently working to fund Child Development Associate, or CDA, training for those teachers at the school who haven’t yet received a CDA credential. The CDA is  the only nationally recognized early childhood education credential in the U.S.

Providing CDA training is not only an investment in the school’s educators, Turner said, but in early childhood education itself: Because a CDA credential is earned through verified training and professional experience, it is not required to be completed as part of a college degree, and is more accessible to people who are already in the workforce or for whom obtaining a college degree would be difficult.

“For people who don’t choose the college way, you don’t want them to never be able to work their way up — then we wouldn’t have as many early educators,” she said.

In addition, Sontag told the News that Turner is beginning to work with the board of directors on a long-term goal of developing a program that would fund tuition for teachers who do choose to pursue continuing education via an associates, undergraduate or graduate degree. 

“It’s part of wanting to lift people out of poverty, and we’re also hoping to raise wages, but we don’t want to stop at that — helping with [funding] education would be great, and that’s something we came up with with [Turner],” Sontag said.

Turner said she hopes providing funds for continuing education will continue to strengthen the Children’s Center at its core, adding that she understands the risk of investing in training that makes a member of staff potentially more attractive to other employers. However, she said, working in early childhood education is “heartwork” — “It’s hard to be in it just for the money,” she said — and that she aims to foster a working environment that encourages teachers to stay for the long haul.

“We have a good solid team that wants to impact the community they’re serving right now,” she said. “I love that this school has been part of the community for so long; we have kids who some have seen go from babies to kindergarten, and we have parents who went here when they were kids. I love that kind of longevity.”

As she settles in as director, Turner said that though she is no longer teaching a classroom of children every day, she still makes it a priority to interact with all of the students. A special connection with children is what sparked her career in early childhood education in the first place, so she still spends circle time with the infants or colors with the preschoolers. This is partly, she said, so the kids don’t see her as a stranger, and partly so she can provide support for teachers if they need to step out of the classroom — and, in large part, because she enjoys it.

Laughing, she said: “If I’m really busy, I have to stay away from the toddler room, because I’ll look up and I’ve been reading books for half an hour!”

“But they love that interaction,” she added. “I love it, too.”


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