From Vision to Reality
By Carl Kotala
It began as a vision – to create a place for children to explore, learn and discover in a state-of-the-art learning center. Today, it’s become a reality.
After moving to Florida from New York, nine years ago, where they owned two children’s centers, Devon and Florence Hunter opened the Viera Children’s Academy on Viera Boulevard. At the time, there were just two nearby buildings – Space Coast Stadium and Manatee Elementary School. Only seven children were enrolled at first, which grew to slightly more than 50 by the end of the school year. Though it may have seemed small, there was plenty of potential, both for the area surrounding the academy and the business itself.
Now, not only has the area exploded with the development of shopping and housing areas, but last year’s enrollment had 221 children, including 98 who graduated from the VPK program. As of mid-July, the center had 201 students enrolled for the upcoming year, and W&J Construction was building a new 5,500-sq.ft. facility that will be adjacent to the 11,000-sq.ft. main building.
“It’s nice to see a plan come together,” Devon said. “The Viera Company has a vision, which seems to be working. This was a huge gamble. Everything that we had went into this, so we had to make sure it worked.”
Devon, who has a background in construction, helped design the layout of both buildings. Florence serves as the school’s executive director and runs an organization that has flourished as the area around the academy has been built up.
“As we grew, the quality of the program, the vision and everything surrounding the operation (Florence) put together, provided a good base for word of mouth, which is probably the best way to attract new students,” Devon said.
A State-of-the-Art Experience
Located on three acres of land, the academy features “park-like” grounds with security cameras for added safety, two separate, age-appropriate playgrounds and a water splash area that is sure to be a hit with any child, especially during the hot summer months.
There are programs for infants (6-12 months), tots (age 1), intermediates (age 2), preschool (age 3) and VPK (age 4) with 28 employees to look after the students. Academically, the academy follows the HighScope curriculum, which is described as “children-initiated, teacher-directed” and encourages hands-on, active learning.
While teachers still make lesson plans based on weekly themes, there is room for a “teachable moment” based on conversations with the students. For instance, Academy Director Trisha Wray-Clemmings said, “Instead of drilling students about one-plus-one-equals-two, students could be having a discussion about neighborhoods. That could lead to open-ended questions, and teachable moments about what’s in their neighborhood and what it looks like. It’s all building on language and building on fine motor skills and gross motor skills. All of it comes into play.”
While the school is well-known for its academics, it is also centered on structure and discipline.
For example, children are required to wear uniforms. Spanish and American sign-language are incorporated from when the child is an infant, but so are learning manners, such as to say, “please” and “thank you.”
“Everything we do with our children is done with love,” Trisha said. “We really try to have children reach their potential. If they can do more, we give them more. If we have to pull back, we pull back. But it’s not just developing academia for the children. It has to develop the whole child.”
Proof the program works is represented by the fact the academy routinely hears from the three main schools it feeds – Manatee, Quest and Viera Charter School – that their students are well-behaved and well-adjusted for kindergarten.
“We must be doing something right because every year we must have at least 15 families come back with the next sibling, and then a cousin and then a friend,” Trisha said.
The new building, scheduled to be completed in September and fully operational by January – if not sooner – should be a nice addition to an already state-of-the-art facility.
“That building is designed to have the older kids – the 4- to 5- year-olds,” Devon said. “It will have classroom space, a meeting room and enough space for additional after-school activities, or in-school activities.” The new space will allow for five more classrooms, which will bring the total number in the academy to 16.
It may have started off as a bit of a gamble, but it’s pretty easy to see that it’s paying off nicely.
As it heads into its ninth year, Viera Children’s Academy continues to grow in both enrollment and reputation. The staff has its own vision of what preschool education should be, and it’s working.
“Other schools have different thought patterns when it comes to education for preschoolers,” Trisha said. “Some schools believe that what you learn is what you learn. Other schools feel they should just drill academics. While we are an academic-based center, it’s also about developing good citizens.”