By J Pancia

Since opening their doors in 2012, the staff at Excel Creative Learning Academy has exceeded their expectations in fulfilling the preschool’s motto to “engage, enrich and empower” children during the most formative years of their lives. 

Mission accomplished, if you go by the reviews of students’ parents and ECLA’s elementary school-readiness scorecard with Pasco County. Online reviews have averaged at five stars, and the academy operates with a continuous waiting list.

While satisfying the demands of parents on their search for a private preschool for their child, ECLA checks off every objective on their list, from safety concerns to the curriculum. 

With expertly designed learning tracks — from infant Discoverers and Climbers to preschool Voyagers and Innovators — ECLA has earned the coveted online praise of parents for its meticulous cleanliness and consistent feedback on their children’s progress. 

Capturing young minds from the heart

A graduate of Kent University, Academy Erika Director Mahoney earned her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and founded the academy seven-plus years ago. 

“I was an elementary school teacher for almost 10 years before leaving the public school system to start ECLA,” she explained. “So altogether, I have almost 20 years of experience.”

Mahoney’s in good company, too. Each ECLA staff member, the director assures, is fully background-checked according to the requirements of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and goes through multiple types of criminal history checks. Lead teachers hold a CDA or higher certification in Early Childhood Education and assistant teachers meet all DCF requirements. Each staff member is also CPR and First Aid certified as well. 

What’s more, many of the teachers at ECLA are long-term staffers who have worked as a team for several years.

Moving forward in changing times

Using the same building blocks as when they started, Academy Director Mahoney and the ECLA staff are forging ahead in the 21st century with an enrichment program that highlights science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics — also known as STEAM subjects.  

“We’re changing our existing enrichment program to a STEAM-driven program for the upcoming school year,” she announced to Tampa Bay News & Lifestyles this week. 

ECLA’s enrichment program, thus far, has brought specialized lessons into every classroom on a daily basis (from age 2 to older). Along with weekly art, music & movement, physical education, Spanish, and health and nutrition lessons with our students, children will be fully prepared for the rigorous demands of our tech-driven society and stricter academic standards.

Some may be concerned that pre-k children are too young for STEAM. Not at all, if you consider their daily activities. According to Mahoney, it’s all a matter of refocusing the learning process. 

For instance, science-based skills encourage curiosity, investigation, answering questions, and problem-solving with experimentation and exploration.

Technology can refer to using simple tools like crayons and rulers or more intricate ones like microscopes and computers. With engineering, kids recognize problems and come up with testing solutions. Art encourages creativity and process development, and allows children to illustrate concepts they are learning. Mathematics deals with numbers, patterns, shapes, organizational skills..

“Kindergarten isn’t what it was when you and I were little, and the expectations are very high for our children,” Mahoney explained. “To prepare students, our curriculum combined with our amazing staff build a love for learning in our students and ensure they are ready for elementary school.”

 A safe space for happy learners

The preschool located inside the Medical Arts Building on the Medical Center of Trinity Hospital campus caters to children of staff and patients, but also the community at large.

From safety concerns to curriculum, Mahoney and the staff at ECLA want parents to know that the measures taken to provide an excellent experience are in place. Twenty-two security cameras monitor instruction and whereabouts of everyone in the academy and check-in and out children using fingerprint scanners to ensure no one is in the school who shouldn’t be.

In the classroom, ECLA uses state of the art technology to ensure each student is ready and capable of entering kindergarten with the knowledge and experience needed to succeed. A state-approved Creative Curriculum, implementation of the Souns program for early literacy, as well as lessons based on Kindergarten readiness skills and developmentally appropriate practice combine to provide an optimal learning experience. 

“ECLA’s daily activities and lessons are geared toward social and emotional development as well as skill-building to make sure all students are prepared for entry into elementary

School,” she said. SMART Board technology, portfolios, centers and journals are used to keep students interested and engaged in the learning process.

“We consider our students, parents and staff family, and are as protective of their well-being as our family at home,” Mahoney affirms.

Always in-touch

ECLA keeps parents in touch with their children’s progress with the “My Brightwheel” app for smartphones. Moms and dads no longer have to depend on their kids to tell them about what they did in school because the app provides details at their fingertips. 

How does ECLA get information to parents electronically? Each classroom is equipped with an

iPad that teachers use to update parents throughout the day. They include details on what kids are eating and snacking on, rest periods, daily activities, diaper changes, potty training and more. 

Photos and videos are also sent to share special moments and parents are welcome to send messages back and forth with the teachers. 

Progress Reports are sent home with students three times a year. Parents also have access to their child’s portfolio along the way so they have knowledge of their child’s strengths and weaknesses and what they’re learning in the classroom.

If you’re interested in visiting ECLA, Mahoney can provide a free tour by appointment only.

Hours of operation are 6:30 am to 6:30 pm., and Excel Creative Learning Academy can be found at 9332 State Road 53, Suite 204, Trinity, inside the Medical Arts Building at the Medical

Center of Trinity Hospital. Call 727-372-4977 or visit excelcreativelearningacademy.com