State gives three stars to Stepping Stones preschool

Stepping Stones Center’s Early Childhood Education program for children with and without disabilities has received three stars – the top ranking – in the State of Ohio Step Up to Quality initiative identifying the top quality early childhood programs in the state.

Preschoolers sing a gingerbread song at the Stepping Stones holiday musical in December. At center, Preschool Assistant Kim Manning with Owen Barker of Anderson Township. From left are Stella Freeman, Clermont County; Owen Barker, Anderson Township; Preschool assistant Kim Manning; Trenton Orick, Newtonville; Jacob Vaughn, Bethel; and Josie Susshine, Amelia.
Of 4,300 licensed early education and child care programs in Ohio, only 168 have reached the three-star level, said Patti Donofrio, Step Up to Quality supervisor for the state. The statewide rating program started in 2007.

Step Up to Quality is a voluntary initiative that assures programs meet rigorous benchmarks for site, ratio of teachers to students, staff education and specialized training, administrative practices, planning, and early learning results.

“The three-star level shows we have a top quality program with a high degree of individualization for each child,” said Stepping Stones Center’s Early Childhood Education Administrator Melissa Sabo.

“We don’t take the easy way out. We have great staff-to-child ratios and that allows us to take the time to handle the hard issues in the moment. It allows us to deepen the children’s learning,” she said.

“Each staff member is dedicated to each and every child enrolled. The reason our children are so successful is we have high expectations for all the kids and we have high expectations for ourselves,” Sabo said.

Stepping Stones’ Early Childhood Education program offers full-day programming five days a week at the Stepping Stones Allyn site, 1414 Lake Allyn Road in Batavia. The program is open to children age 3 to 5 and welcomes children with disabilities including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, learning delays, medical needs and those without disabilities who can benefit from the highly individualized program.

Stephanie Susshine of Amelia said the three-star rating confirms the quality that she has already seen with her daughter, Josie, 3.

“Our daughter doesn’t have a disability, but she is more responsive to the hands on teaching. We are so happy with the school. The teachers are excellent,” said Susshine. “We’ve seen such an improvement with her speaking. She’s starting to share more. She is an only child and was pretty much by herself. She has really grown. She has made good friends and she loves the swimming. That’s something most schools don’t have.”

The preschoolers in the Stepping Stones program swim regularly in a warm-water pool.

“Josie is a typical child. I wanted her to get comfortable around children with disabilities,” said Susshine. “When she gets older, I want her to be one of those kids who stands up for the other kids.”

Marcela Barker of Union Township has two sons with autism in the Stepping Stones program. A daughter, who is typical, attended Stepping Stones Early Childhood Education program and is now thriving in first grade.

“We just love everything about the program,” Barker said. “The staff is amazing. They really worry and care about the kids. They are always trying to find ways to improve their learning. They are truly like a second family to us.”

She said Owen, 3, and Lucas, 5, are largely non-verbal.

“They have become so much more independent,” she said.

“His teacher sings a song when she puts Lucas to sleep – You Are My Sunshine.” The other day Lucas was singing that song. He sang the entire song. That’s major.”

Administrator Sabo said staff members are attuned to each child’s needs and interests, and work to capture the teachable moments and celebrate individual successes.

“If Jacob runs up to me on the playground and says “Look at this cool bug I found,’ I might say “I wonder what he eats. I wonder what kind of bug he is. Should we look him up in the bug book?'”

Capturing that curiosity and turning it into a teaching moment excites the zest for learning, she said.

“We look it up at that moment. We don’t wait. Two hours later, they don’t care. But at that moment, they’re eager to learn more,” she said.

Staff members encourage creativity.

“If a child figures something out, we celebrate that. We say “Wow, did you see that?'” Sabo said.

The program follows the nationally recognized Creative Curriculum that includes circle time, learning centers for language, math, science and creative play.

The Early Childhood Education program is part of the larger Stepping Stones Center programming at the 47-acre Camp Allyn site in Batavia, which has lakes, creeks and wooded trails. The preschoolers raise tadpoles and release them into the pond.

They see wildlife on nature walks and incorporate nature in their science lessons.

“Every child has different abilities and different styles of learning. Some of our children need specialized materials. We’re able to meet those specialized needs and help get them ready to enter kindergarten,” Sabo said.

The Early Childhood Education program operates year-round and accepts children throughout the year. For information, contact Melissa Sabo, (513) 732-0240 ext. 12 or Web site

The Early Childhood Education program is supported by grants from United Way and private foundations including Charles H. Dater, Frances R. Luther, Robert Gould, Daniel and Susan Pfau, Robert H. Reakirt, Jacob G. Schmidlapp, Anderson, Macy’s, Juilfs and L. and L. Nippert.

Stepping Stones Center is a United Way partner agency serving children and adults with disabilities at two locations: Stepping Stones Allyn, at 1414 Lake Allyn Rd. at the Cincinnati Rotary-owned Camp Allyn in Batavia and Stepping Stones Given, 5650 Given Road, Cincinnati. Besides Early Childhood Education, Stepping Stones provides day and residential camps.

Weekend respites, year-round alternative education programming for students with severe autism, adult programming, and Saturday Kids Club offering extracurricular activities for students age 6 top 16 who have disabilities.

For more information about Stepping Stones, call (513) 831-4660.