With 20 years of experience in education—not to mention, seven kids of her own—Lourelle Woodson-Soto clearly knows a thing or two about helping children develop and reach their full potential. When she saw firsthand that many of those important elements were missing from local child care centers, she was moved to do something about it.
Along with her husband Jamie, Woodson-Soto founded The Gloucester Learning Academy (GLA) in Williamstown in early 2019, where she also serves as executive director. The center is open to children between the ages of 6 weeks and 13 years and provides a development plan tailored to each individual’s specific needs while guiding them on an accelerated learning path.
Previously an educational business consultant for private and charter schools across South Jersey, Woodson-Soto is thrilled to be influencing young minds with her highly qualified and compassionate staff behind her.
“I worked for a state program that would go into child care centers in our area and I would come home and be really upset about the things I witnessed,” she says. “At one point my husband said he didn’t think I would be happy until I opened my own school, so that’s what led us to opening GLA. We were inspired to help families in Gloucester and Camden counties and the surrounding communities.”
GLA’s mission is to maximize the critical years between birth and the age of 3, when children build the skills and behaviors conducive to lifelong learning. “They are sponges at that time,” Woodson-Soto says. “They absorb the experiences that happen to them and they hold them for the rest of their time in school. We want this to be the most loving, nurturing and educational place for them so they understand moving forward what to expect in a school setting.”
Utilizing two state-approved curriculums called HighScope and Creative Curriculum, GLA puts students ahead of the curve by observing their daily routine, evaluating their needs and creating an appropriate plan that sparks their learning while also embracing their creativity.
Parents are expected to take an active role in their children’s education and are in constant communication with GLA, learning about their students’ accomplishments and milestones. Children are reassessed every six months and there are at least two parent-teacher conferences per year.
GLA also has a family social works on staff to ensure additional support for families, whether it be emotional support or assistance in accessing resources.
“The parent engagement piece is very important,” Woodson-Soto says. “We embrace the family as a whole and we make sure they are involved in their children’s learning. That way, the children can feel they are part of a team with their parents and teachers.”
Learning begins as early as the infant program, a stimulating environment where gross motor skills are taught. Spanish and sign language even begin at this stage and carry into the toddler, preschool and pre-K rooms.
For older children who may be at GLA for before- and after-school care, there is a wealth of exciting extracurricular activities to choose from, including dance and cheer classes, robotics, art and music, soccer and basketball and a theater program. Some of these are led by GLA staff members, while others are offered in conjunction with outside partners like Drama Kids in Medford.
“As the parents of seven children, my husband and I remember what it’s like when you have to be at a wrestling match and a dance practice at the same time, even though our children are mostly grown now,” Woodson-Soto says. “So what we’ve done for parents is become a one-stop fun shop.
“I feel it’s really important for children to get a feel for things that might interest them, without their parents having to make a long-term commitment and then finding out their child has no interest in ballet class and would much rather play soccer.”
Tamira Wolbert discovered GLA last year when she was seeking before- and after-school care for her 3-year-old daughter—who attends a Head Start school in Sicklerville—as well as all-day care for her infant son. She appreciated the busing they provided her daughter to and from her other school, as well as the reasonable costs. But most of all, she was drawn to Woodson-Soto.
“When I spoke with her, I could just tell she is a good person and she knows what she’s talking about,” Wolbert says. “She’s very educated and she has all of the necessary licenses. I worked at a daycare for over eight years when I was younger, so I know how many kids and how many adults are supposed to be in each room. When I went to do a walk-through, all of those things were being followed and I felt very comfortable.”
GLA’s ability to go above and beyond has also been apparent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as it was one of the only child care centers in the region gaining state approval to remain open for the children of essential employees such as doctors and nurses. It adopted even stricter sanitation and cleaning procedures than normal, practiced social distancing and had all employees wearing masks, in addition to other measures.
Wolbert, who works at Voorhees Pediatric Facility, was relieved to learn her children could remain at GLA during the pandemic.
“GLA was able to meet all of the qualifications and do all of the technical things the state required in order to be an essential child care, and that made me feel really good about the place I had chosen for my kids,” she says. “Since COVID my daughter has been going there full-time, so she’s going over the alphabet and colors and everything that is normally taught at her age. Also, when her regular teacher from her Head Start school has Zoom meetings, they help her log on so she can see her other teachers and her other friends. I was excited that they were there to help with that.”
Assisting families like Wolbert’s is such a significant part of GLA since it is family owned, and Woodson-Soto’s daughter Daige Woodson-Pierce is also onboard as education director. Their approach has led to a memorable and successful first year in business, and they plan on opening two new centers in the near future.
“We are very family-oriented,” Woodson-Soto says. “That is why we love and promote parent engagement and host so many family activities. Not only do you get all of the professional and educational needs met, you also have a warm, family feel when you’re at our center.”
The Gloucester Learning Academy
1117 N. Black Horse Pike | Williamstown
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 3 (June 2020).
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