KEARNEY – This isn’t your average child care center.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney’s newest building raises the bar for early childhood education, setting a standard for high-quality learning and instruction that will benefit the state’s youngest residents for generations to come.
Members of the UNK community and guests from across the state got their first look inside the game-changing facility Tuesday afternoon during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center, a $7.8 million building that officially opens Nov. 4 on UNK’s University Village development.
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“The Plambeck Center is going to be a model for the best early childhood education centers in the United States,” said Chancellor Doug Kristensen, who called the 19,900-square-foot building a “shining jewel” on the UNK campus.
“There’s really no place like this in the state of Nebraska,” Kristensen said while noting the impact it will have on local families, UNK students and communities across the region. “The possibilities here are endless.”
The Plambeck Center, which replaces UNK’s Child Development Center, is the first academic building in the University Village footprint. Located near the Village Flats housing complex, it features 11 classrooms that will serve up to 180 children from infant to age 6, including those with special needs, with spots available for UNK students, staff and faculty, as well as families from the Kearney area.
“By opening the doors to the community, the center will serve a more diverse group of children and give UNK students a chance to work with families from different backgrounds,” Kristensen said.
Led by highly trained educators, the center allows children to explore reading, writing, art, music, sciences and physical education in structured learning environments that utilize either creative curriculum, building on children’s knowledge to develop confidence, creativity and critical-thinking skills, or the Montessori teaching method, a student-centered approach that encourages exploration, independence and lifelong learning.
“This is much more than a building,” University of Nebraska interim President Susan Fritz said during Tuesday’s event. “It’s a signal to children and families, to our students, and to the community that we are making an investment in the future.”
In addition to serving Kearney-area families, the Plambeck Center will address a statewide need for early childhood educators by training undergraduate and graduate students in a hands-on setting that exposes them to the best teaching methods.
“We know there’s a severe shortage of high-quality early childhood education providers,” said Grace Mims, interim dean of UNK’s College of Education. “That’s been a big issue, especially for rural Nebraska.”
According to the 2018 Kids Count in Nebraska Report, nine counties statewide had no licensed child care facilities in 2017, and a majority of Nebraska counties with child care facilities didn’t have enough available spots to meet the estimated demand.
First Five Nebraska, a group working to improve early childhood education in the state, estimates Nebraska needs more than 7,900 highly qualified early childhood professionals to serve only at-risk children facing poverty and other challenges. Currently, there are about 2,000 of these professionals working in the state.
“It’s a workforce need and a community need,” said Mims, noting that child care and early education are among the top priorities for employees and businesses looking to move into a community.
UNK’s early childhood education program, which is among the largest in the state with more than 260 majors, can play a key role in building this skilled workforce.
“It’s exciting to have a facility like this in our community,” said Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Derek Rusher, who called the Plambeck Center the “Cadillac” of early childhood education. “This is a tremendous opportunity for Kearney.”
The Plambeck Center will serve as a lab school for UNK, giving early childhood and elementary education students an opportunity to work directly with children while learning from top-notch instructors.
This opens the door for numerous professional development and experiential learning opportunities, including observations, practicums, internships, student teaching, diagnostic testing and research.
“The Early Childhood Education Center already is a destination for some of the best faculty in the country,” Fritz said. “It’s a place where undergraduate and graduate students will become our best teachers.”
The Plambeck Center will also promote interdisciplinary collaborations across UNK’s three colleges and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, benefiting faculty and students in areas such as communication disorders, physical and special education, family studies, psychology, social work, fine arts and nursing, and advance and create partnerships at the community, state and national levels.
Those partnerships, including the vision shared by UNK, UNMC and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, demonstrate the University of Nebraska’s commitment to early childhood education, Fritz said.
“The Plambeck Center is another example of what we as a university system, and UNK specifically, are doing to help Nebraska thrive,” she said. “It is providing incredible opportunities to build on our momentum.”
A financial gift from LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck of Omaha, a longtime advocate for early childhood education, added two dedicated Montessori classrooms to the Early Childhood Education Center named in her honor, as well as an endowed Montessori education professorship and an endowed fund that will support workshops, seminars and other outreach activities for early childhood education providers across Nebraska.
“LaVonne’s vision to bring this kind of expertise and emphasis on early childhood education to UNK will impact the state forever,” said Mims, who recognized Plambeck with the Early Childhood Pioneer Award during last month’s Early Childhood Conference at UNK.