Tucked away in a building on Stock Island, the Lighthouse Christian Academy (LCA) is a haven for working parents who need well-meaning minders for their infant through pre-kindergarten kids.
For 14 years the school, which is affiliated with the Covenant Word Church, has provided a secure environment for playing and learning, for youngsters getting ready to enter kindergarten and the Monroe County School District.
"Our unofficial motto is, 'play as you learn, learn as you play,'" said LCA's director Jennifer Sisco. "It may not always look like it, but there's a lot of learning going on here. Everything we do is leading up to preparing these students for kindergarten. This is definitely more than baby-sitting."
At present, the school's students are spread out among five classrooms inside the building at at 5580 MacDonald Ave. Each classroom has its own lesson plan, curriculum and parent board. At each level the students are challenged with the baby steps they need to eventually progress through to the school system.
"In this first classroom here, they're working on language skills, and eating with a fork," Sisco said during a recent tour of the school. "Then, over here in the second classroom, they're working on talking in small sentences and potty training. And here they're learning roles and characters as well as prematch concepts. And we always encourage reading."
During a stop in Room 4, Francesca "Ms. Fran" Hicks smiled as her students rode past her on plastic motorcycles.
"I want to teach the children that although we may not have everything we want, we should still be thankful," Hicks said.
It's a sentiment the teacher shared in the November issue of the Lighthouse Kids News, a newsletter put together by LCA staff. The one-page sheet aims to keep parents informed about goings on at the school, and kids informed of their school mates birthdays.
Also in the November issue is a reminder that the school has "adopted" Army Troop FSC 1-5 CAV "The Executioners," which is currently stationed in Afghanistan.
Troop member Brian Gardner is the son of Chrissy Gardner, one of the certified teachers at the school. As a result of the adoption, students are asked to bring practical items to school to be sent overseas to the troop in time for the holidays.
As to the school's religious bent, Sisco said that only about 10 percent of the students are parishioners, and that believing is not a requirement for students.
Still, each school day involves time spent in "chapel," where students from all five classes pledge allegiance to the flag, sing songs, and even get some exercise, dancing and running around the church. And in each class, Christian children's music wafts through the air.
"Our core mission is to provide a safe and friendly environment for the children of working parents," Sisco said. "We're not here to cram religion down anybody's throat. However, our foundations are Biblical. We work on applying God's word to everyday life."
Of greater concern than adding to the flock, Sisco said, is the idea of helping busy parents take care of their kids, even as they commute to jobs in town.
"As part of our mission, we're a year-round school, open from 7:30 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening," Sisco said. "A lot of our parents live up the Keys, so we're perfectly located for them to drop the kids off on their way into town in the morning, and pick them up on their way out of town, after work. We only close for federal holidays."
One skill that the school places special importance on is American Sign Language, which teachers use to try to asses the needs of their students.
Many are too young to effectively relate questions or comments to their teachers, so the use of sign language "takes some of the frustration out of it," Sisco said. "In this way, they're able to tell us that they're hungry, or tired. While they're at an age where they're trying to do everything for themselves, to be independent, there are still things they need help with, and by using simple sign language, they're able to do so."
The school has no cafeteria, per se, but even though parents pack their children's lunches, the school administrators do keep an eye on what they're eating to make sure noontime meals are nutritious.
"We spend a lot of time reminding the students which foods are good for their bodies, and will help them grow up to be big and strong," Sisco said, pointing at a U.S. Department of Agriculture "my plate" table, formally known as the government food pyramid, on the wall. "Since we're spending so much time with these kids during the day, we sort of see them as an extended family, and so we try to be as concerned for them in that regard, as their actual guardians. And, in turn, we're monitored by the Department of Children and Families."
School funding is provided by tuition paid. Though the student population is capped by law at 119, the school will also try to make room for new students, and work with them on financing, including school readiness with the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade/Monroe.
"We like to think that there's always room for one more," Sisco said, as she led a group of students out into the side yard playground. "We always try to find a way."