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Karen McMinn TenBroeck stands at Branford Early Learning Center’s (BELC) Wall of Fame, where photos include hundreds of children she’s taught in her 40 years as a BELC educator. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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More than four decades of annual class photos fill the Wall of Fame at Branford Early Learning Center (BELC), and teacher Karen McMinn TenBroeck is in just about every one of them.
“I’m not in this one,” she says with a laugh, pointing to a faded photo from 1978—but she’s in the next, and all the rest, right up to the Class of 2019 and counting.
Back in 1979, when Karen was fresh out of community college, she applied for a job as a BELC teacher’s aide. Karen thought it would be the first step of a career that would someday include a job she’d been dreaming about since she was kid: working as a public school teacher.
“I knew I wanted to be an educator when I was in 5th grade,” says Karen, who spent her earliest years in West Haven, but most of her school years (grades 2 to 12) in North Branford. She now resides in East Haven.
She says she was inspired to teach by her 5th-grade teacher at the former Jerome Harrison School (JHS) in North Branford (today, the school serves grades pre-K to 2).
“I remember Mr. Melillo sitting with my friends and me, eating lunch with us in the cafeteria,” says Karen.
That year, she got her start on her teaching career path by assisting a JHS kindergarten teacher with lining up kids for their buses at dismissal time. She continued to help other teachers as she went through grade school and into high school.
A Good Interview
After graduating with the North Branford High School Class of 1976, Karen attended South Central Community College (now Gateway) and earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education.
“I graduated in May and I learned of an opening at BELC in September,” says Karen.
During the interview, she brought up her two years of work experience at a private pre-school, where Karen had worked while also attending college.
“And that interview, for this job, is the only interview I’ve ever had to do! I always tell people if I had to do another interview, I wouldn’t know where to start,” says Karen.
She also says if someone told her, 40 years ago, that she would never leave teaching at BELC, she wouldn’t have believed it.
“I really thought that I would go a couple of years here, and then get my bachelor’s degree and move to the public schools,” she says.
Instead, Karen fell in love with teaching at BELC.
“My heart was here. I loved this age group. The kids have so much love to give to us, as well me to give to them. And no two days are the same!” says Karen.
Karen was still living in North Branford when she joined BELC. Later on, she added a bit of a commute to her job when she became a resident of Hamden for 18 years, until the passing of her husband, after which she moved to East Haven, where she is now a resident of 13 years.
At BELC, Karen went on to become the center’s longest-serving head teacher of four-year-olds. She worked with the age group for 32 years, with one of her main tasks being to help them prepare for kindergarten. Through the years, Karen’s work with the youngsters evolved to meet changing expectations for educators readying students for kindergarten.
“It has changed over the years quite a bit. The work we do at the pre-K here now is what kindergarten used to be,” says Karen. “Now, when they get into kindergarten, halfway through the year, they’re reading books.”
As one might imagine, after 40 years at BELC, Karen’s had the pleasure of not only teaching children and their siblings, but also some children of parents who were once her students. Many of these returning families have told her that the would not want to miss the opportunity for their children to have Karen as their teacher.
“I’ve had siblings and I’ve had students of mine coming back with their children. They’ve told me they wanted to come back to the same center because Miss Karen is still there. That means a lot to me,” says Karen.
One of her former students, Melissa DeLucia, returned to BELC as an adult to join Karen as an educator.
“Melissa was in my first class, in 1979,” says Karen. “And now, she works with me here, as a teacher in the ABC room. She’s been here 20 years.”
Changes in Location, Approach
When Karen first started out at BELC in 1979, it was as an aide in the three-year-old classroom, and the center was based in a church basement on Rogers Street. It then relocated to a few classroom spaces at the former St. Mary’s School on Cedar Street, before arriving at its present home in the former Pine Orchard School on Birch Street.
“Twenty-seven and a half years ago, we were lucky enough to move into our current location,” says Karen. “This enabled us to grow our center to what it is today.”
The program currently serves children from ages 8 weeks to pre-K with five classrooms. Karen provided a major assist to BELC’s growth when, in 2016, she made the switch from teaching BELC’s four-year-olds to lead the program’s new Toddler Room, for children 18 to 36 months.
“It was quite a change from teaching four-year-olds! But it was a brand new classroom starting up and I thought, ‘I’ll give it a try. What do I have to lose?’” Karen recalls.
Turns out, the toddlers had much to gain.
“I took my four-year-olds’ projects and I brought them down to their level. I’ve had my two-year-olds actually learn more, because they rise to the occasion,” says Karen.
At 18 months, some of her youngest students are still non-verbal or only just beginning to talk.
“They’re not even at [the stage of] cooperative play,” says Karen. “And then it’s amazing how they grow in one year. They start to play with each other, and as the year goes on, we do songs, and ABCs and counting. And by the time the year has ended, the things that they have learned! Things like shapes, the alphabet, counting up to 20. They’ve picked it all up in that one year.”
BELC is a year-round program, offered 12 months a year (the center does close for one week twice a year, in December and August). BELC families hail from Branford, North Branford, East Haven, and Guilford.
“In any of those towns, if I come across a parent or a student, there’s a big hug,” says Karen, who has worked with hundreds of students through the years.
For her, every one of those meetings are “heart-warming,” says Karen. “I’ve had no children of my own. Basically, these are my children.”
As a State Department of Education-funded agency, BELC’s mission is providing the children of working parents with high quality, affordable child care and early childhood education. The center is also accredited by National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The team at BELC follows the center’s philosophy of educating the “whole child,” says Karen. That includes their nutritional well-being, physical and emotional health, social relationships, and academic growth.
Karen’s also proud to note that BELC recently won top honors as “Best Childcare/Daycare” in Shore Publishing’s inaugural Best on the Shoreline contest, and that BELC’s director, Diane Pappacoda, was honored earlier this month as a 2019 Shore Publishing Beacon Award winner.
Karen says BELC’s warm, caring environment, the staff, the families and, of course, the children, have made this place like a “second home” to her.
While the last 40 years at BELC have flown by, Karen says she has no plans to retire soon.
“I’m very happy working with our director, Diane, all the staff, and especially the children at Branford Early Learning Center.”
For more information on BELC, visit branfordearlylearningcenter.com.
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