Cassandra Campbell and her staff sit in the offices of the , managing the buzz of daily tasks and visitors dropping in. Outside, the view is of large shade trees, older Martinez homes and finally, the Franklin Hills. It’s almost tranquil.
Campbell, the school’s executive director, cautions a visitor not to be misled by the quiet.
“It’s nap time right now,” she said. “Things won’t be this quiet in a little while. Besides,” she continues, “all the bureaucracy is in this room. Out there in the classrooms, it’s the Martinez community. The artists, musicians, and others come here. And we go to them. We are very involved in this community.”
Field trips are common, and include visits to the , the marina, the farmers market and the , she said. The 77 MECC kids presently enrolled in the school have a student/teacher ratio of one teacher for four students in the toddler program, and one teacher for eight students in the preschool program.
Campbell and her staff are all true believers in this place, which has served low-income children in Martinez since 1974. It is a federally-funded program that serves children ranging in age from infants to five years old. It has been a life-saver and game-changer for many Martinez parent.
“MECC was one of my life's greatest blessings,” said Kelly Sumrall of . “When my girls were small, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly a single mom. I was working, but my income was limited. I couldn't afford childcare. A coworker of mine directed me to MECC. Not only was I eligible for childcare, it was the most loving, nurturing, educational, professional care imaginable. They took special care to provide individual attention to my children's needs, and taught my kids to be considerate of other peoples needs as well. Miss Cassie (Campbell) was head teacher at the time, and had a passion for nature and art which my children learned to love early. MECC was the main reason I was able to keep working, stay out of the system, and support my daughters on my own. The service they provide families like mine with is invaluable.”
“These people raised my children,” said Cathy Riggs, owner of I’ve Been Framed, and whose children went to the school through the third grade. “There was a time when my kids went on strike, because I bought the cheapest shampoo and tuna. They told me we couldn’t use any products that were tested on animals, or eat any tuna that wasn’t dolphin-safe.”
Though at the time she was upset by their stand, Riggs said such lessons have paid off in their adult life, as they have clear notions of what is and isn't right.
“I never had a single doubt that my kids were well cared for,” she said. “My life would be totally different now if it weren’t for them.”
MECC students are taught basic skills through various projects and field trips, Campbell said. For instance, a trip to the farmers market will involve weighing and counting. The kids will ask farmers how things grow. It’s a real-life classroom disguised as an adventure.
“Our mission is to provide quality care and education to children from one to five years old,” Campbell replied, when asked to sum up the purpose of the facility. “We are trying to close the achievement gap that children from low income families are showing in the K-12 system. And the research shows very clearly that programs like ours can close that gap very nicely.”
A typical day for kids at MECC begins with a hot breakfast – oatmeal and eggs and other goodies. Then the day begins with choices of activities that help develop various skills, with teachers all fully licensed by the state Department of Education. All MECC teachers have at least a BA, and some have an MA.
As a visitor is shown around the 2.8-acre campus that at one time was a Mormon church, Campbell shows off a wall devoted to one of the latest projects – bees. Apparently one of the kids found a dead bee, and that led to a flurry of questions: can you still get stung by a dead bee? Do bees only sting once and then die? Do bees eat honey? What do bees eat? Where do they live? The questions are all written down, along with what the kids already think they know about bees. As the project moves along, they find out more and more facts, and work on various aspects of bee knowledge, including planting a garden with things that attract bees, having a honey sampling day, and working with wax.
“We observe children in action,” Campbell said. “We develop plans to help move them forward in that development. It’s a project approach to learning.”
The MECC is holding its at the Martinez Event Center. Live music by the Blue Moon Brothers (which includes Campbell’s husband and Martinez Patch blogger Bruce on bass), wine tasting from local and regional vineyards, and a silent auction are all part of the festivities.
Given the mission of the MECC, and its rich history in raising several generations of Martinez kids, it’s hard to think of a better cause.