School Spotlight: Opening the CIS Early Childhood Center

Cayman International School recently opened their brand new Early Childhood Center, an expansion that increases the capacity of the school, while maintaining the small class sizes and positive culture that CIS is known for. In the following piece, Melody Meade, CIS Early Childhood Principal, writes about the journey from planning to opening, and beyond. Enjoy!

Opening the CIS Early Childhood Center

By Melody Meade, CIS Early Childhood Principal

There’s a chicken on the playground!

With the arrival of that first chicken on our new playground, I knew that we were finally moved into our new Early Childhood Center. To design, finance and construct a school building to support our philosophy of education for our youngest learners feels like both a long and short journey. What I learned in this process is that the power of connection between people within a school community is at the core of a school’s culture.

Three years ago the Early Childhood teachers and administration at Cayman International School (CIS) began to brainstorm and design a new Early Childhood school building, as part of a growing campus for students in Nursery through graduation in grade 12. The simple goal was to create a flexible purpose-built learning space, dedicated to the needs of our youngest students. Teachers collaborated on what is most important in a play-based program, where exploration and inquiry are the foundations for learning. Through each iteration of the design process, it was clear that CIS’s definition of learning within an Early Childhood context was at the core of the design.

After designing, prototyping, and researching best practices and beautiful images of leading Early Childhood schools around the globe, CIS’s Early Childhood teachers had drawn out and written down every detail of their big ideas and blue-sky thinking. They detailed teacher collaboration rooms, lofts in classrooms, flexible spaces with moveable walls, outdoor teaching areas complete with mud kitchens, water pumps from cisterns, dry and wet play areas, music gardens, and trike tracks that would run over a man-made hill with underground storage.

The next phase was to incorporate as many of these ideas as possible into the architectural and landscape design. With the management of expectations and ongoing communication about the progress of what design elements were included and which got “cut”, the EC team’s spirits remained high about the prospect of a new state-of-the-art building with 23,000 square feet dedicated to children ages 2-5.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2018. 

On the building site, there was a clearly demarcated area cordoning off boulders and branches; dusty sand blew when winds kicked up, or muddy puddles formed with each downpour. Our grand opening was just 12 months away. The timeline seemed improbable, considering how many things can, and do, go wrong on an island, where all resources are shipped in. As the construction went into full swing, there was hopeful talk that no hurricanes would re-route ships filled with large containers, no political issues or tariffs would stall furniture arrival or materials, and of course, during hurricane season no weather issues would impact the construction workers, who were on a seven-day week work schedule.

Our building grew almost like a time-elapsed photo. The ground was cleared, the area was roped off. Students in our Early Childhood classes would go to the top of our main library and look at the cranes, dump trucks, pulleys raising large beams and windows into the sky, and the orange construction vests, hard-hats and clipboards of the builders as they moved about the blocked-off site. Our students wrote class stories about building, materials, and the sounds of construction. Students drew pictures and researched the Cayman parrot (the national bird) and white-winged doves who had all moved to another part of our campus. Walls went up, windows went in, large palm trees from an island nursery were trucked in, their branches bobbing as cranes lifted them into large holes in the ground.

Fall 2019

Construction fences were removed, plants were watered. We unloaded dozens of containers of furniture and checked off pages of inventory representing hundreds of boxes. We moved in, we set up. It was beautiful and one would think we wouldn’t look back to our former EC wing –but we did! While we are only a two minute walk from our previous location, everyone was missing the easy community connections of literally crossing paths with colleagues and students in different divisions.

Don’t get me wrong,

we love our building and everything it represents for young children and learning. The rooms are filled with natural light perfectly positioned to meet the hot Caribbean sun. We love the wide shaded teaching terraces, which create a symbiotic connection to outdoor and indoor learning spaces. We love imagining how our playground will become a natural green canopy to play and explore under. We love the lofts in our classroom, the nooks and crannies built into the design, we love our music and movement room, library, teacher collaboration rooms and our bright welcoming lobby. It was beautiful from top to bottom, so what could be wrong?

Change

The Early Childhood School has always been an integral part of our full campus. Just twelve months ago almost everyone knew each other and work-life was filled with meaningful and easy collaboration across the grades. Friendships were made, siblings saw each other, the rhythm of the day from morning drop-off to after school activities were mostly predictable. Newly hired teachers learned from returning teachers. Now with the changes everyone was learning and creating new systems together. Our core philosophies were the same, our mission Connect Inspire Serve was the same, but everything else was different. I worried about the teachers; they were incredibly invested and while everything worked, it felt like a particularly challenging start of the year. I could see that some heavy lifting was needed to honor our past, while also growing our culture and maintaining that can-do spirit always present in the Early Childhood team.

And so it began

We got our new systems in place, we organized where things belonged, we figured out the kinks in our pick-up and drop-off schedules, we began to build connections with our growing teaching team. With these things in place, the magic returned. Signs of documentation and student-centered learning began to appear on the walls. “Meet our Class” self-portraits smiled at us through the windows onto the playground. A teacher stuck painters tape on the floor of a long corridor in zigzag formation for students to glide, jump, slide and roll through. Wall dividers between rooms were opened up and teachers broke out of their classrooms, fully using the school’s flexible spaces. Buddy classes from the Elementary division began to connect and come over for reading, science, math and play buddies. High School teachers and students were planning meetings about the environment and sustainability. The divisions were connecting again!

Clean Slate

Open spaces and clean walls look beautiful as a testament to the building and architecture, but it is the life that the students, teachers, and parents breathe into the building that make a place a true community of learners.  From those first high moments when we entered our building and took in how extraordinary our teaching and learning space is, we continue to build a sense of belonging and community.

Chickens and roosters are common in the Carribbean, yet it was only with the first seeds that dropped from our new playground foliage, that the chickens began to appear.  It was beginning to feel like home.

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