This article originally appeared in Williamsburg's Next Door Neighbor (pdf).
From the moment Nicole Norton walked past the white picket fence and into the front door of Williamsburg Campus Child Care (WCCC), she felt at home.
“I just remember a warm, comfortable and cozy feeling,” she says. “It reminded me of the childcare center my daughter, Ryann, had attended back in Ann Arbor.”
Since December, 2011, Nicole has served as assistant director at WCCC. Prior to that, she had worked with children and families for about a decade, in a variety of teaching and administrative positions. She believes that the cozy feeling of community she felt from day one is one of the things that makes the popular child care center unique.
Williamsburg Campus Child Care opened in 1981 as a parent-run co-op. In 1992, the Center moved into its current building. Located on the campus of William & Mary, the Sarah Ives Gore Center (named for the donor who made it possible) is flanked by playgrounds on each side, one for toddlers and another for the older children. Some of the windows are at eye level so that even a nine-month old can see outside from his or her classroom.
Inside, there are five classrooms that accommodate infants and toddlers from 6 weeks of age up to Pre-K. Although W&M families have priority for admission, approximately 30% of the families enrolled are from the broader community. “I think the biggest misconception is that people in the community may know of us, but they don’t realize that they can come and be part of the Center,” Nicole says.
Small classrooms set the tone for specialized learning and for families to get to know each other. With 21 teachers and administrative staff , the Center serves some 75 children during any given year. The average length of staff employment is 9.6 years which is pretty remarkable.
“A quarter of our teachers, five, have actually been here more than 20 years,” Nicole says. The teachers and staff enjoy close relationships with the families they serve. “We are big on family involvement. We know that involvement will enrich our program, as well as the lives of our children and families. We’re a close knit center.”
As the Center’s assistant director, Nicole takes her work very seriously.
“Research shows that the foundation children get in the early years lays the groundwork for future learning,” she says. “A large focus of what we do is making sure that children leave here excited to learn. They are exposed to activities in different subject areas through hands-on experiences and play, building on a natural curiosity to learn.”
Obviously, the campus location is a bonus. One day there might be international students from the Reves Center’s FLAG program visiting to share about their countries and cultures, and another day the Tribe Truck Farm rolls in (literally, a farm located in the bed of a pickup truck) and students involved in sustainability efforts on campus teach the children about organic gardening.
There’s never a dull moment.
“ The kids thought that the Tribe Truck Farm was really cool,” Nicole says. “It was fun to see them sample the veggies and herbs off of the truck. There were kids who won’t eat their veggies at lunch happily eating the fresh spinach coming off of the Tribe Truck Farm. My daughter being one of them.”
Some of the children at the Center are bilingual, speaking languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French, Spanish, Dutch and German. “We love when our families share their languages and cultures. Currently, there are approximately 10 languages spoken by WCCC families. We had a little guy in one of our toddler rooms who would speak in both English and German. He got a lot of his classmates speaking some German too.”
As one might expect, Nicole’s role is multifaceted. She works closely with Janet Yang, the Center’s director, on day-to-day matters. She also serves as volunteer coordinator and manages the 15 student employees working at WCCC.
WCCC also partners with professors from both William & Mary and Thomas Nelson.
“I believe that we are a great resource for both institutions,” Nicole says. “I think that having the college students coming in to utilize our center for research or observation is a huge asset for student learning. For many students, coming to our center brings what they’re learning to life.”
For their part, the children enjoy a full, fun day. With the Center’s close proximity to Colonial Williamsburg, it’s not uncommon to see the tots walking in town, holding steadfast to the rope that keeps them adorably single-file. Excursions include parades to Baskin Robbins, visits to the library, story time at William & Mary Bookstore, and outings to Duke of Gloucester Street or the Sunken Garden on campus.
This past spring, the Center partnered with Merchants Square and the university to host Williamsburg’s first annual “Tot Trot” 1K walk/run through Colonial Williamsburg. Geared toward children under the age of six, the event was a resounding success.
At the end of the day, Nicole knows that parents working on campus and in the community have the peace of mind of knowing that their children are not only being well taken care of for their custodial needs, but they are being well prepared for the future.
“We offer families a place for their child to receive excellent care while they are doing what they need to do to provide for their family,” she says.
Education runs in Nicole’s own family. Her mother earned a degree in education and worked as a substitute teacher before taking a job as a preschool teacher. “She stayed home with my sister and me when we were little, but as we got older she went back to work.”
“Growing up, I knew I wanted to work with children in some capacity,” Nicole says. “Initially I thought I’d teach kindergarten. Then, in college, I kept changing my mind and considered social work instead. Finally, I found a major that combined many of my interests.”
She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Family Studies from Central Michigan University, and just last year, Nicole completed her Master’s Degree in Education from William & Mary.
Rewind, however, to 2009, the year she and her husband, Daniel, moved to Williamsburg from Ann Arbor.
Daniel had accepted a position in Information Technology at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business on campus. Soon thereafter, Nicole set out to find a job that would fit her professional background and also her circumstances as the mother of a young daughter. She found a position in another local child care center, and worked her way up from lead teacher to director before joining WCCC.
“I had read about Williamsburg Campus Child Care and liked what I read, but had never visited,” Nicole says. “ Then, one day I learned that they had an opening for an assistant director.”
The rest is history.
Last year, while working full-time (and being a wife and mother of two), Nicole completed the requirements for a master’s degree from W&M’s School of Education. “I always wanted to get my graduate degree,” she says. “I was scared at first because I hadn’t been in school for so many years. But once I started I fell in love with the School of Ed and the time flew by.”
It took Nicole about three years to complete the program. Nicole remembers evenings when she would read her homework assignments out loud to her daughters, Ryann and Stella, both of whom are alumni of WCCC. Nicole is happy that they got a solid start there.
“I know that we are preparing our children for their education and what lies ahead,” Nicole Norton says. “But I also believe that we are nurturing the next generation of our community.”