For Leigh Scott, transforming a Selbyville staple into a spacious and modern daycare and early-learning center wasn’t simply a matter of answering a true calling: It was a way to secure a family legacy and hold onto its heritage. The structure – which, from the 1940s until last year, operated as Scotty’s, a men’s clothing store – has now entered it’s fifth generation in the family, opening last month as the Next Step Learning Center.
“I didn’t want to see it sit empty,” said Leigh Scott, owner and manager of the new daycare and learning facility, “and I definitely didn’t want it to go to somebody else. When I had the opportunity to buy it, I jumped on it.”
Over the years, the corner store, situated at Main and Church streets in Selbyville, had undergone its share of changes, operating as a general store, furniture store and retailer for both men’s and women’s apparel.
“It had been through a lot of transformations,” said Scott, “but it was never a learning center like this. Being a teacher, I had always wanted to open a daycare center, and I had been trying to for years.”
A decade ago, Scott taught in San Francisco, Calif., where she also studied, earning a master’s degree in special education. In 2000, she relocated back to the Delmarva region and began her own in-home daycare a few years later with the arrival of her daughter Isabella. By the time her son Aidan was born, her ambitions and dreams had risen even higher.
Taking over the Selbyville location allowed for an expansion of space and, in turn, her imagination. While she saved as much as possible, including desks, tables and chairs, the entire building was stripped down and renovated as the transformation began. With the exception of her office upstairs, which once belonged to her father and grandfather, the entire building was refurbished.
The Next Step Learning Center welcomes children 6 weeks old to 8 years old, though that age range may extend further after enrollment picks up. The building has the capacity for 156 children, with rooms designed for exploration and learning. The first floor houses toddler rooms, preschool rooms and discovery preschool rooms that hone in on the early developmental learning skills.
They’re connected by murals, painted through the hallways, that depict businesses that have come to make Selbyville what it is today. From The Flower Nook and the fire station to the Tom Thumb Diner and The Bee Hive, shops that line the town streets, and ones that used to, decorate the walls. An original, imaginary storefront also made its way into the mural.
“Isabella and Aiden’s Pet Shop” was an inspiration from her children, who share a love of animals.
Infants and early preschoolers at the Next Step Learning Center interact with the Creative Curriculum program, a method of teaching young minds in early development. In the preschool and discovery preschool rooms, children’s learning will follow the Pyramid approach to education, another method of teaching.
Finalizations are being made on the second floor to complete specialized rooms for older enrollees, from 5 to 8 years old. The curriculum for these children is based upon Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence but is still an original vision of Scott.
Children will rotate between rooms designed to stimulate different curiosities. In the “Movin’ and Groovin’” room, they’ll be able to scale a rock wall, cut some rug in front of a dance mirror, climb ropes dangling from the ceiling and make beautiful music with a variety of instruments. In the “Naturally Curious” room, they’ll have the chance to monitor terrariums, learn about gardening and animal habitats and maintain an earthworm farm.
From there, they can find their inner visual artist in the “Creation Station” room, where they can explore all the mediums of art, including clay, paints, chalk and pastels. They’ll even be able to doodle on the walls, floors or on easels fashioned out of old shoe-fitting stools.
“A Star is Born” is the name of the room where children’s greatest ambitions are unearthed. Complete with a stage, a prop shop, costume collection and a complete, role-playing, restaurant set-up. In the “Author’s Corner,” kids can find their inner writer, with such escapes as a reading loft, puppet theater and magnetic poetry wall. Finally, there is the “Inventor’s Studio,” where mathematic and scientific minds have free range, exploring logical situations and experiments.
Throughout the week, different tasks, both individual and group-based, will be offered in these rooms. Other rooms will be labeled “free play” rooms for the day, with limitless possibilities.
“In these different rooms,” said Scott, “children will see each other excel in different areas. It’s a way for them to shine, and sometimes struggle. They’ll be working together on these strengths and weaknesses.” The key component at the Learning Center is “no put-downs.” Positive attitudes and an encouraging hand help promote ideal development.
The children will also be able to enjoy playgrounds outside when the weather is nice. Hallways connecting the rooms will be loaded with activities, as well, from interactive etches on the wall to diagrams and charts. Snacks are included with enrollment, and a healthy lunch is also available for the children.
The discovery preschool room hosts similar ideas to the themes upstairs, set on a smaller scale.
“They have the same aspects,” said Scott. “Every one of the classrooms is broken into centers. I have a firm belief in the fact that everybody learns differently.”
Spending considerable time with special-needs children, Scott said she has come to understand what is required of individuals who have a variety of learning conditions.
“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s just a matter of learning at a different pace. The kids are always moving, here. There’s not a lot of sitting.”
While the rooms are designed to stimulate the mind on a number of levels, children are encouraged to explore without boundaries.
One of the most noticeable things about the learning center is the absence of televisions and computers.
“We want to encourage kids working with each other and really getting hands-on,” she said. Research has shown that this type of learning can spark brighter minds and expand the imagination, she noted.
“From a young age,” Scott added, “you start to see where kids are more comfortable. We present them with the idea of having them move around from center to center, and they grow comfortable with who they are and what they are capable of doing.”
Children are grouped into tribes – a method designed to encourage cooperation and help them develop leadership skills. From there, they may be paired up or switched around, prompting additional interaction and expanding friendships. The center is bilingual, as well, with Spanish-speaking families encouraged to take part.
Enrollment picked up to roughly 30 children earlier this week, and Next Step has 10 well-prepared employees to interact with them. The number of employees is expected to increase with enrollment.
“Everyone who works here is great,” said Scott. “Some have PhD’s and bachelor’s degrees in education, and some are new to the field. We have a few mothers and some who always had a desire to work with children. We’re absolutely lucky and fortunate to have every one of them. They work great with the kids and with each other.”
Applicants for jobs at the center submit a series of essays describing their experience and background. Each classroom is monitored with cameras, which can even be viewed online. The building is secured by a lock that only grants access by means of a pass code or by being buzzed in.
“Everything is converted onto computer software,” said Scott. “We have all the children’s photos, and photos of parents and anyone who picks up the kids. It’s a way of keeping things safe, and it puts the parents at ease.”
The Next Step Learning Center is equipped with three drop-off spots for easier access, and the display windows around the building will feature artwork and holiday themes from the children, keeping it a welcoming staple within the community.
“We’re constantly getting more calls, and we’re expecting a lot more as we head into the summer,” said Scott. “Being a teacher, I’ve learned that it’s easier with more kids. Our staff is phenomenal, and the building is not only aesthetically pleasing, but filled with professionals. I’ve even had teachers take a tour and shed tears of happiness. They said that these programs will give the kids the preparation they need before they’re in school.”
Friends, family and the community have been showing their support of Scott and the new center.
“It’s been a lot of work,” she said, “but we’re finally here. I’m happy I’m able to keep the family’s name going and can still offer this to the community.”
For more information about the Next Step Learning Center, stop by their location at the corner of Main and Church streets in downtown Selbyville, or call (302) 436-3633 for more information. Tours are available now, and a special peek will also be available on Saturday, June 20, during Old Timer’s Day.