By Rick Weinberg, Editor, California Business Journal.
At a private school that sends students to top universities like Harvard, MIT and Stanford, the daily victories of the pint-sized students Rae Douglas welcomes to school each morning might seem insignificant.
After all, many of her preschoolers are just mastering potty training and her kindergarten students are just starting to read. It’s a small start on a long and competitive road, but according to this former teacher and school director, it’s the start that matters most.
“Preschool is my passion,” says Mrs. Douglas, who emigrated from New Zealand with her husband and two children in 1979. She taught kindergarten in the Garden Grove school district for nine years before accepting an administrative position at Fairmont’s Citron campus. Her love for the ‘little ones’ has grown into a purpose, a profession and a passion.
“Children at this age are a blank slate and we are helping them become little students,” she says.
You only have to spend a few seconds with this beloved educational director to witness her genuine affection for each of Citron’s 140 preschool and kindergarten children and to feel the loving environment she has created at the campus through her warm personality.
“When you walk into Citron, you genuinely feel the love and tenderness in the air,” says Phil Jordan, who had two children go through Citron. “And it’s because of Rae Douglas.”
Having impacted hundreds of families and students in such a positive and inspiring manner during her career at Fairmont, Mrs. Douglas has made it her life’s work to give Citron’s youngsters a head start by preparing them mentally, physically, socially and emotionally for the big world outside her cozy campus doors. It’s a mission she shares with her staff of preschool and kindergarten teachers—educators she considers friends and teammates in a tough, but rewarding profession.
“I so admire preschool teachers. Actually, I think they are undervalued,” she says.
Teachers in higher grades are praised for their students’ high test scores and other quantifiable achievements. It’s more difficult to demonstrate how early elementary teachers make a difference. “I want to make my preschool teachers feel just as important, just as valued, as high school teachers,” she says.
Once you ring the buzzer to gain entry to Fairmont’s Citron campus, you immediately sense that this is not your typical school. The campus is an unlikely cross between Disneyland and grandma’s house, with colorful artwork adorning every wall, the voices of happy kids coming from classrooms and exuberant teachers rushing down hallways. It’s the kind of place parents dream about and seldom find.
Citron is so special – in a variety of ways that Nelda Gow drove all the way from Oceanside every day just so her daughter, Michaela, could attend the school. Moreover, when Dannie Zhang traveled from China in search of the best school for her son Edward, she wound up choosing Citron.
“As soon as I walked into the school, I had this overwhelming feeling of warmth and love,” Mrs. Zhang says. “I knew immediately that this was the place for Edward. And after he started, I was convinced of it.”
That loving environment and culture was created, developed and nurtured by Mrs. Douglas, a grandmother of four little boys and the primary reason Citron feels like a home away from home for her young pupils. She isn’t shy about putting her maternal instincts to use around campus.
“There are so many hugs and kisses that go on around here,” she says glowingly, and it saddens her that administrators in other preschool programs aren’t allowed to express themselves as freely. Teachers and staff are stand in mommies for hours each school day. It’s an opportunity to nurture tender hearts and spirits that teachers take as seriously as the three Rs.
“I know the kind of sacrifices moms are making to have their children here,” Mrs. Douglas says. “I want those parents out there working all day to come in and pick up a happy child.”
In her opinion, the key to a successful program is creating an atmosphere where everyone from teachers to students to staff is on task and having fun. “You’ve got to have kids wanting to come to school. If you’ve got a kid that’s not excited to come to school, then the learning part doesn’t happen.”
Many a day comes and goes when Mrs. Douglas has been busy addressing parent concerns.
“It’s important to nurture the parents just as much as the students,” she says. “I’ve had the child be fine on the first day of school but the mom is down in the lobby sobbing. It’s my job to make parents feel comfortable and let them know I realize how hard it is.”
Mrs. Douglas isn’t just cultivating a love of math and reading in her students. She’s also helping reinforce the character training they are receiving at home. Through the “I’M TERRIFIC” program, students hone their social skills and build self confidence.
She and her staff foster well-adjusted students and provide parents with the skills and support they need to be successful teachers at home. “We are an extension of the home and the home is an extension of the school. When we are a team, that’s when great things start happening,” she says.
For one Citron family, Mrs. Douglas helped explain the need to go beyond academic preparation. It’s a reoccurring theme for an administrator who has seen kids’ knowledge of academic concepts soar as their emotional quotients have plummeted. “Mrs. Douglas emphasized to us the importance of a holistic approach for our daughter’s preschool education,” says Citron parent Jan Li.
“We thought if she could just do a lot of math problems and read a lot of words that she would be doing great. But Mrs. Douglas explained that social development and learning other life skills like how to be considerate of others would be very helpful to our daughter’s success in school. My husband and I wouldn’t have thought of these things as that important, but we see now that she was right.”
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[Rick Weinberg is Editor-in-Chief at California Business Journal. He is a well-known journalist, writer and reporter who has worked for the New York Times, FOX and ESPN. He launched CalBizJournal.com to focus on California businesses and business professionals and California business information and news.]