Driven by a strong love for teaching, Renée McGhee opened the Panoramic Learning Academy, or PLA, in Berkeley despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
An in-home licensed day care facility for children ages 2-5, PLA focuses on physical, emotional, spiritual and academic development, according to its website. As every child learns differently, PLA is committed to helping students discover their unique strengths and abilities, the website states.
“People are going like ‘who starts a business in the middle of COVID,’ but I don’t think I’m starting a business. I’m fulfilling a dream and this is something I’ve wanted to do,” McGhee said.
McGhee was a substitute teacher for several years at three different schools, where she said she loved spending time teaching children but grew tired of switching between the schools.
She wanted to find a better way to continue her passion, but it was not until her nephew asked if she had ever considered opening an in-home day care that the process began.
“I could’ve fell over because it’s like, how’d you know!” McGhee said.
In February, McGhee began converting her living room into a classroom, trading in her kitchen space for cubbies and her patio for a play yard. The process of opening a day care center, however, was one of the most difficult periods in her life, McGhee said.
One of the challenges McGhee faced from the COVID-19 pandemic was that many of the classes she was required to take in order to open a day care center, including first aid and nutrition, were not readily available. When she opened the facility, she put many health precautions in place to ensure the children’s safety, McGhee said.
The safety measures include taking children’s temperatures several times, sanitization upon arrival at the facility and restricting parents from entering the center, having them come in through the courtyard instead, according to McGhee. She added that the social bubble for the children comprises only her and their classmates because McGhee does not let anyone else into the facility.
“It took a long time because of all these different challenges,” she said. “But after it was all over, I took a deep breath and said it was worth it.”
The academic goal of PLA is not to teach children through memorization, but rather to encourage students to engage in activities they are drawn to, according to McGhee.
PLA does this by observing each child and uncovering which activities the student is most interested in, allowing McGhee to encourage children in unique ways.
Currently, PLA has three children, and they are very inquisitive, McGhee said. If the students express interest in a topic outside of a planned activity, McGhee stops the activity to “feed into what they’re hungry for.”
Overall, this makes for a smoother day and allows McGhee to coach students in the area they express interest in, she said. She added that the students then feel good about themselves for achieving the task and she in turn becomes equally excited, engaging in a “you did it” dance with the students.
In the future, McGhee hopes to open three to five PLA facilities, ideally restricting each center to no more than eight students.
“I love having the kids and they love being here,” McGhee said. “Every day is exciting; it’s something new.”