Teresa Branch takes reins as director of Caldwell County Smart Start

Oct. 25, 2013 @ 07:31 AM

Teresa Branch has spent most of her career in K-12 education, but her next step will have her focusing on the learning that takes place before students step into their kindergarten classes.

Branch, a former teacher, assistant principal, principal and Exceptional Children director for the Caldwell County Schools, is the new director for Smart Start of Caldwell County. (Branch has also served on the Caldwell County Board of Education, and spent two years with the North Carolina New Schools Project as a program consultant and leadership coach for school districts across the state.)

“It’s really exciting to be in the pre-K world now, because my experience has been kindergarten- to college-aged students,” Branch said. “Now, to be a part of those formative years is really exciting, because it sets the stage for the rest of their life.”

Smart Start is a statewide initiative that aims to prepare children socially and academically for kindergarten, based on research showing that many children enter their first public-school classroom unprepared.

It’s funded by the North Carolina Partnership for Children, which allows for local control of Smart Start services, allowing directors to adjust services to the needs of their counties.

In Caldwell County, Smart Start funds North Carolina pre-K slots and provides support and training for child care providers, programs and support to help families ready their children for kindergarten.

Child care centers that partner with Smart Start can receive a variety of tailored support, from tuition assistance for child care workers looking to study early-childhood education to help with offering insurance benefits to employees.

The latter helps recruit more experienced and educated teachers, said Terry Munday Starnes, director of Countryside Child Care in Granite Falls. And that, in turn, raises the quality of the classroom environment, Starnes said.

The program also funds N.C. pre-kindergarten slots for 4-year-olds in public elementary schools, Head Start programs and for-profit child care centers.

As interim director of the Caldwell schools’ Exceptional Children program, Branch worked to increase the number of pre-K slots available in the county. She also worked to create blended classrooms consisting of N.C. pre-K slots, Exceptional Children slots and tuition-paying slots, so that pre-K better resembled the makeup of a kindergarten classroom.

Ultimately, classes were added at two sites: Baton Elementary and A New Beginning Children’s Center in Lenoir.

Branch said she wants to continue making room for more N.C. pre-K opportunities, whether that’s through corporate sponsorships or other means.

“It’s sad to me that some families apply for N.C. pre-K and we don’t have spots for them,” she said. “We want to generate funds so that nobody’s left behind.”

Branch said the ultimate goal is for Smart Start to serve as many of Caldwell’s newborn-to-5-year-old children as possible.

“There are about 2,000 days from birth to starting school,” she said. “We’re just trying to make every day count.”