By Blair Yankey
As the director of the Children’s Place Learning Center, Kathy Gilbert works with a diverse group of children every day.
A hallmark of the center, which primarily serves the children of WMU students, faculty and staff, is its international climate. Children at the center come from a variety of countries, including China, Saudi Arabia, and more. Some children speak English despite coming from another country, and some don’t speak any English yet.
Gilbert and the staff connect with non-English speaking children by using nonverbal cues. The staff may have the child’s parents give them basic words that are used in their home, until the child’s English improves. Sometimes there are two children who speak the same language.
“Kids tend not to care what language you speak; there seems to be this other language that kids speak that doesn’t have anything to do with English or any other language,” Gilbert says. “Adults seem to have the most problem.”
Gilbert has been the director of the center since its opening in 1996 and she has helped the center grow from having just 12 preschool children to its current enrollment of nearly 55 in the preschool and toddler rooms. The center is located on WMU campus across from Rood Hall.
What also sets the Children’s Place apart from other childcare centers is it’s just one of three centers in Kalamazoo accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Another unique aspect of the center is that it is the only center in Kalamazoo that offers hourly rates, says Gilbert. She notes that parents can control childcare costs by scheduling their children around their class schedule, instead of scheduling a child for a full or half day.
The best part of her job, according to Gilbert, is getting to know a variety of people. Learning about different cultures and ways of life helps her understand how people work, and figure out why things are the way they are.
“I definitely enjoy creating the relationships and bonds with the children and their families, meeting people from all over the world and all walks of life” Gilbert says. “We help prepare children for life-long learning, and also learn about different cultures and ways of life.”
Growing up in central Indiana, Gilbert was not exposed to much diversity. She lived in a predominately white, middle class neighborhood, and attended a predominately white, middle class school system.
She completed her student teaching on a Navajo reservation, where she taught Native American children at a boarding school in Arizona. This program required her to take an extra year of schooling and training so she could become familiar with the Navajo culture. Gilbert says this was the first time in her life that she was in the minority; there was only one other Anglo teacher.
Gilbert has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Indiana University, and master’s degrees in early childhood education and educational technology from WMU. She taught kindergarten at private schools in Indiana and in the Detroit area for a couple of years prior to being a director.
During her spare time, Gilbert enjoys interacting with the children – she tells jokes or plays a board game, for example. Pictures the children have drawn are posted on her desk and Gilbert will sometimes wear necklaces the children have made her. Whenever the children are in her presence, she smiles and will engage in a brief conversation with them.
Kristin Harte, head toddler teacher at The Children’s Place Learning Center says that Gilbert understands how to lead the center. Harte has worked with Gilbert for four years and says that Gilbert has taught her how to manage the classrooms, create lesson plans and to interact with parents and families.
“She’s not only great with the kids, but we as teachers wouldn’t be able to do what we do without her,” says Harte.