Developing young minds: District’s new Virginia F. Wood Early Learning Center named in honor of longtime teacher

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Craig Wood knew how important helping to shape young minds was to his late mother, Virginia F. Wood.

Wood said after teaching at Westfield Washington Schools for a few years, his mother worked with at least 100 students. Starting her own family, she saw a need and co-founded Christ United Methodist pre-school in Westfield, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in May. The number of students who have gone through it is in the thousands, Wood said. His mother, a 1933 Westfield High School graduate, died in 1993.

Wood, a Westfield resident, and his family made donations for naming rights to Westfield Washington Schools’ Virginia F. Wood Early Learning Center, which is on the property of the Monon Trail Elementary School. It is home to the TOTS Child Care Center for infants ages 12 weeks old to preschool and All Aboard Pre-K Program. The ribbon cutting was held Sept. 6.

Adding the Early Learning Center into the mix has the potential to impact development exponentially,” Wood said.

Wood said he had initial conversations with former WWS Supt. Sherry Grate approximately two years ago.

“Dr. Grate said there was a need for an early learning center, and if they had that in place, they could (do) other things within the school system,” Wood said. “Wheels began to turn. Then things were beginning to progress, so I thought would it be OK if we could require the naming rights in honor of mom. Dr. Grate was very much appreciative. Our family contributed toward the building of the building. Donations from our family helped turn the building into a realistic probability and hearts were still beginning to warm.

“During construction, I felt mom’s presence in the building checking out all the features.”

Wood said he could envision his mother and father standing with huge smiles and nodding approval with his mother saying, “That’s our family,’ and dad saying, ‘Yeah, that’s a pretty good job.’”

Wood, a 1973 Westfield High School graduate, said the facility has features that other facilities across the city can’t offer. Wood has two older sisters. One, Rachel Merrill, lives in Wellbrooke of Westfield, a senior living community. The other, Mary Margaret Banas, lives in Virginia.

“We can see mom all over this building,” Wood said.

Marci Derado, director of student support programs for the Wood Early Learning Center, has been with WWS since 2015. She has led the child care program since November 2017.

“It’s amazing to see everything done, see the kids all together and be able to watch my staff members collaborate within the same building, which is something we’ve never been able to do,” Derado said. “We’ve been little islands in multiple schools. They are thriving as leaders because they are able to discuss things with people like them. The same with kids who get to see all the kids their age.”

Derado said the 57,487-square-foot building, which has about 18 classrooms, will be able to hold up to 436 children.

“We intentionally don’t fill our 4-year-olds classrooms to capacity because we are allowed to put 24 in, but we only put in 20 because we feel they are going to get extra attention from having 20 instead of having 24 in a classroom.”

Derado said the children have an 18,000-square-foot playground designed for infants through age 5 rather than one designed for elementary school students.

“Bathrooms are all the right size,” she said. “The sinks are at the right height. The table and the chairs in the cafeteria are the right height for the kids to be able to eat correctly. It’s wonderful to know this is built for children this age.”

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