Learning center

Flexibility is key to the success of the Spotted Zebra Learning Center

Necessity is the mother of invention, the saying goes. This rang true for Sheri Canfield when she first looked into preschool programs for her twin children, one of whom was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. She looked for child care programs that could accommodate her two children, those who would be fully integrated, a 50/50 split with disabled and non-disabled children.

She was failing in her search. So she started the Spotted Zebra Learning Center in 2005. At the time, she was working as a commissioner for the Department of Youth and Workforce Services for the City of Albany, but in 2006 she went full-time at daycare and preschool. Canfield, executive director and owner of Spotted Zebra, reflected on the past 17 years.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: In a way, starting Spotted Zebra was inspired by your own kids, right?

A: Like everyone, I dreamed of my children attending a typical kindergarten and having this typical experience. I needed an enveloping program. Even to this day, child care is difficult to find before and after children are approved for specialized care. Typically, a child goes from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and then moves on to a daycare that may not know them or use the protocols or techniques to bring out the best in them.

Q: I am a twin, so I can relate to a parent trying to find care for two children at the same time.

A: In the first class, we had five sets of twins and a couple of triplets. In 2006 I decided I wanted to be here, that’s where my heart was. I then became a full-time manager. It’s been history ever since. We started with one class. In the fall of 2006, we had three classrooms operational with 14 children each. When my children were in kindergarten age, I felt they needed one more year to be solid to enter public school. Then we added the kindergarten curriculum (to Spotted Zebra). The agency has flourished ever since.

Our goal is to find places to innovate. We started a sensory center – we still do to some degree. What I personally found was that the kids responded really well to sensory input and sensory stimulation. It helped develop the awareness you want, visually and physically. We created Bizzy Bees, a really cool program, and invited the community to check out this gear. We have opened another location with the one in Wolf Road – it is more of a traditional nursery school where classrooms are 2.5 hours in the morning.

Q: In this integrated learning, do you find that it creates a feeling of empathy between classmates?

A: Absolutely. I would definitely say that. I can’t tell you how many children and families who have gone through our program want to go to training or go to therapy. It creates empathy with children, it teaches them even if we are different, we are all the same. It has a lifelong impact.

Q: Who is Spotted Zebra staffed with?

A: We have more than 50 employees, full-time and part-time, and they are all professionals, which is unique. When you put your child in preschool or daycare, not everyone will have degrees or master’s degrees as licensed therapists. That’s what makes Spotted Zebra special: it’s not just a daycare center, but also an educational facility to help children with special needs and all the other children there. We have 75 kids at Spotted Zebra and over 30 kids at Bizzy Bees, with people who have their Masters in Special Education or Early Childhood Education. This model really benefits all the children who come here.

Q: As a former Commissioner of the City of Albany’s Department of Youth and Workforce Services, you work with children in a public setting and are now in the private sector. How have you brought this experience to your center over the years?

A: Working for the City of Albany for nearly a decade gave me a plethora of experience working with different state and local agencies in creating and implementing programs that met a need in our community. These skills were invaluable and helped me in creating Spotted Zebra. The Spotted Zebra is an organization that falls under the oversight of several state agencies – NYS Office of Children and Family Services; New York State Department of Health; and the NYS Department of Education. Also, working in the city of Albany, I have learned to work with so many different people from all facets of life. This skill has been invaluable in running a program like Spotted Zebra and in working with families, school districts and government agencies.

Q: What do you think are the main ways Spotted Zebra has been affected over the past two years (with childcare as an industry having been hit hard in general)?

A: We crossed it with so much caution. I think the key was that everyone, including our staff, was flexible in how we handled the situation. My background is administrative. I rely on the staff we hire to help us become the best. When COVID hit, we talked about ways to keep kids safe. We have learned that when you keep children within their cohorts, it is good to ward off disease. The masks worked. Some people have said it hinders development, but it helps reduce disease. We have been consistent with our health policies. And we have good communication with our families – our families felt that we had been very transparent – ​​when we have a flare-up of illness, we have shared it with the whole school.

Q: The Best Daycare/Preschool category is new this year, and you got the top spot. How do you react to this?

A: My husband was reading the paper, and he said, “You’re in the top 5,” and I said, “No way.” I was shocked. We are a little different and the area is rich with programs, daycares, daycares and good people. I was humble, I was really humble. To say that we won was unbelievable. I never thought when we started something like this would happen.

Best of the Capital Region 2022

Best of the Capital Region 2022

Union Times

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