Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo
A Bonita Springs-based early learning center plans to add a kindergarten class next fall — the first step toward eventually becoming the area's first nonreligious private elementary school.
Discovery Day Academy, which serves 80 infants to 5-year-olds and offers a voluntary prekindergarten program, is starting with 15 spots in its kindergarten class, school director Elizabeth Garcia said. In the next few years, she plans to continue adding classes up to fifth or eighth grade.
"Most growth happens from the foundation up," Garcia said. "And I think that's the best kind of growth you can have."
Discovery Day Academy puts an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math and on 21st century skills. Garcia only hires teachers who hold at least a bachelor's degree — exceeding the state requirement for the preschool level — and implements technology into the school's curriculum.
The kindergarten class will be offered at the school's Pelican Landing location, 3480 Pelican Colony Blvd, which is in its third year. Garcia is looking at potentially purchasing a lot in Pelican Landing near the school and building another facility there, with one serving as the early learning site and the other as the elementary school site.
Together, the early learning and elementary sites would serve about 150 children at most.
In Bonita Springs, there are two private schools, both of which are Christian, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Estero has no private schools. Naples has 22, while Fort Myers has 27.
There's a critical need for more private school options in the Bonita Springs-Estero area, Garcia said. Private schools appeal to parents because they have smaller student-to-teacher ratios, offer more individualized instruction and are free from the bureaucracy public schools operate under, she said.
"I think school choice is very important, and we have many public and charter options in this area, but the closest private school is in Fort Myers or Naples," Garcia said.
Amber Schilling, whose 4-year-old daughter Olivia is one of eight students already signed up for the kindergarten program, agreed that more choices are needed. Before learning about Discovery Day Academy's expansion plans, she and her husband had considered making the drive from Estero to a Fort Myers private school, a nearly two-hour drive round trip during season.
Many parents in the area choose a public school for their child's elementary years to avoid the commute, then send them to private school for middle and high school, she said.
Smaller class sizes and more one-on-one attention were important to Schilling and her husband. Discovery Day Academy's research-based curriculum, Spanish classes and age-appropriate philosophy lessons helped solidify the couple's decision to enroll Olivia there.
"These are all things that we would only be able to find in the private schools that we toured but without the ticket price," Schilling said.
A year of kindergarten at Discovery Day Academy is priced at about $8,000, Garcia said. That's slightly above the average of $6,733 the nation's private elementary schools charged in the 2007-08 year, the most recent for which the data is available.
But it falls far below the $13,995 price tag of kindergarten at the Canterbury School in Fort Myers and the $16,975 for kindergarten at the Community School in Naples.
Schilling said Olivia has learned more than she can remember knowing at her age. At 4, Olivia is close to being able to read and has learned about topics her parents had thought were beyond her years.
"The things that she's coming home and talking about, we never expected," Schilling said.
Getting past the public perception that early learning centers are day cares — places where staff baby sit children for the day — is the biggest challenge Discovery Day Academy faces in trying to expand, Garcia said.
"It's going to be a matter of overcoming that social stigma and having people realize, 'Wait a minute, this is something different,' " she said.
Alexis Chaffee, whose daughter Kennedy is in her second year at Discovery Day Academy, said the education provided by the school goes "above and beyond" her expectations.
"From an educational standpoint, they are outstanding," she said. "My 4-year-old is reading. Everything that they do, they make the learning process really fun for the kids."
Chaffee said she signed Kennedy up for the kindergarten program because she believes her daughter wouldn't get the amount of individual attention at a public school that she gets at Discovery Day Academy. Another perk: Kennedy's teacher, Allana Cardenas, will move up to teaching kindergarten.
When she found out about Discovery Day Academy's plans to offer kindergarten, Chaffee said she only had one concern.
"I said, 'Well, what do I do when she leaves kindergarten?' " she said.