Dani Gwiazda has turned her desire to spread the love of learning into a progressive, eco-friendly early learning center. Now with two locations, Island Prep is a sought after alternative for local families, and is a dream realized for Gwiazda.
Gwiazda always knew she wanted to work with children. This desire brought her from her Louisville, KY home, to Flagler College, where she earned degrees in Education and Exceptional Student Education (ESE). Upon her 2005 graduation, Gwiazda was hired into Flagler County, beginning her seven year kindergarten journey. “I had 25 kindergarteners by myself the first day of school,” she said. Midway through, she put her secondary degree in ESE to use in an inclusion classroom, practicing differentiated instruction.
Over time, she began looking at the direction education was going, specifically the increase in rigor and assessments. She found herself instructing kindergarteners how to fill in bubbles on a scantron test. One day, Gwiazda was leading a “When I grow up, I want to be…” exercise. When it was her turn, before she could finish her sentence, a student interrupted her. “No no no, Mrs. Gwiazda, you’re a teacher,” he said. “You can’t be anything else.” This comment sparked her to look inward, and ignited a longing within, to take a different path in education to return to the heart of teaching. “At the heart of teaching, is watching children read and light up when they sound out a word. It’s the most amazing thing in the entire world,” she said.
The idea for Island Prep was born before Gwiazda was pregnant with her daughter Lola. The direction quickly shifted from prepping four year olds for kindergarten to asking, “What about the young children? We need to make sure we have a great place for them as well.”
August 2011, Island Prep opened on Anastasia Island with four classes, from one year through VPK. Lola was her youngest student. A year later, they added more classes, a playground, and garden. Each year Island Prep has grown and as of Spring 2015, has expanded into a new second space that is home to VPK, and a kindergarten addition. Island Prep has around 250 children between the two schools, including Lola, who will be going into the new kindergarten class, and Gwiazda’s son Milo, age 2.
From day one, Gwiazda has received support from her husband, her mother, who came on board to serve as Dani’s office manager, and friends who trust her with their children’s care. “When it comes to education and your children and parenting, we are all just trying to provide the best for our children. Everything we do is the best choice we can make and the best we can provide for each child,” she said.
A LOOK INSIDE
As you step through the doors of Island Prep, you’ll notice the warm environment, cool lighting, and a calming presence. TVs have been traded in for activities including morning yoga, Spanish, sign language, zumba, and martial arts. Smartboards and other interactive learning tools are in place. The activities and amenities here aren’t merely frills, but mindful decisions. You won’t find behavior charts or competitive rankings. Instead it’s all about community and teamwork. Rather than a timeout, Island Prep focuses on positive reinforcement. They have an “all by myself” space for self-regulation.
“When we do have challenging behaviors I love to find out what makes that child tick. I am always looking to ways to adapt and change environments,” said Gwiazda. The curriculum is a hybrid blend, including Montessori philosophies, making sure the needs of every single student are met, rather than determining a child’s learning level by birthdate.
Classroom instruction includes time for self-reflection. “There are open centers and movement throughout the classroom based on what the kids want to learn about.”
While Dani is the leader, she acknowledges her teaching staff as instrumental puzzle pieces. “As a teacher, you have to love to learn and learn to grow so that’s something that’s really important. I’m all about change and adding to the program,” said Gwiazda. Adding the new school has allowed Island Prep to create more of a boutique school at the original location, home to the younger students beginning at 10 months. It means they can have an even lower child to teacher ratio.
“They’re children they’re not sardines. Just because a state says you can have a certain capacity doesn’t mean you have to fill it up until it’s busting,” she said.
As a green certified operation, bleach is banned and is replaced with eco-friendly alternatives. Essential oils diffuse through the air. Kids fill their water bottles at a filling station.
Island prep is entirely shoe free, to eliminating germs being tracked in from the outside.
It’s a progressive environment, not to be trendy, but for health and safety of every child. For Gwiazda, everything is worth the investment. She doesn’t cut corners or compromise her philosophy for a cheaper option. Ultimately she manages Island Prep as an enriching service for the community.
“My husband and I have never manned this as a business. It’s always been: How do we keep improving? What else do we incorporate to make our school successful? How do we give back? I never want to think we’ve hit our best…” said Gwiazda. One way of continuing to give back is expansion.
For this fall it’s the addition of two kindergarten classes with a max of sixteen students each. “Every year I’m going to see what the demand is and if the parents want it I’m going to add it,” said Gwiazda. Her mantra is, “If we’re ready for it, why not?”
Island Prep is located at 4171 and 4001 A1A South on Anastasia Island. Learn more at www.islandprep.com.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 print issue of St. Augustine Social Magazine. Photography by Rob Futrell, exclusively for St. Augustine Social.