New Y Learning Center principal finds niche

Dec. 1—With long experience at the prekindergarten and elementary level, Sandy Canava felt ready to take on the role of principal at the Odessa Y Learning Center.

In partnership with Ector County ISD, the Y offers education for 190, 3 year old prekindergarten students.

"I have taught prek 3 to 5 with Head Start. ... I did teach second and third grade also for ECISD, so I do have some teaching experience," Canava said.

Canava went to Odessa College and took some courses at University of Texas Permian Basin. She earned a bachelor's degree in education studies through Ashford University in San Diego.

A native of Pecos, finished her junior high and high school years in Odessa.

Canava always wanted to go into education. She played school with cousins and friends.

"I always knew this was what I wanted to do. I didn't see myself as a principal. I saw myself as a teacher and I've done that. So who knows, maybe it will transition back to that again, but for the meantime, I'm really happy with where I am," Canava said.

Having been principal since August, Canava said she likes the YMCA's program because it's a little bit different.

"It's not just all ECISD, but it also incorporates a lot of the why, as well. So I like that it's a little bit different. I'm learning a lot and I did bring in some of my knowledge from prior experiences," Canava said.

She noted that her teaching experience, particularly the prek, has helped a lot.

"... I'm able to know a lot about the kids that are here. I'm able to help a lot of the teachers and guide them where they're needed based on experience and knowledge. The teaching part has been helpful also because I know a lot of the ECISD aspect," Canava said.

The YMCA still has more space. Canava said they would like to fill 80 more spots if possible by the end of the school year.

She added that they should have 10 teachers and 10 teacher aides. There are openings.

Each classroom gets 15 students per session. Canava said it sometimes goes over a little bit, but they try to stay to 15 to 16 students per session.

Enrollment is year-round and students have to be 3 years old before Sept. 1, just like ECISD requires.

There is a morning and afternoon session and transition rooms for childcare for working parents. The morning session ends at 11 a.m. and the afternoon at 3 p.m. Childcare is offered between the morning and afternoon sessions and after the afternoon session until 6 p.m.

"... It is a separate cost from the ECISD tuition unless they qualify, but we do have that availability for the working parents, or parents that don't fit the three-hour schedule for our school," Canava said.

If parents don't need childcare, there are some eligibility criteria that they have to fall into to get free tuition.

Canava said once people find out about the pre-k 3 program, word of mouth travels fast.

"... A lot of times we do have people that come in and say that they didn't know about our program or school and friends or family have told them about us and they come in they even try to enroll ...," Canava said.

She added that the program is only for 3 year olds, so if parents try to enroll 4 year olds they are directed to the correct school.

Canava said they have bi-weekly meets with ECISD.

"We have guidance from them, questions answered, updates, but they've been very, very helpful," she added.

Canava's go-to person if she has questions is Director of Early Childhood Education Beatris Mata.

"We have someone also in the curriculum part that really comes in and helps us also. Her name is Natalie. We have another one for bilingual, so there's always someone we can reach out to when we need any assistance, guidance, help, information," Canava said.

Although she has only been at the Y for three months, she noted that she has seen a difference in the students.

"At the beginning, it is a transition period for the kids to get adjusted to our schedule and our routine," Canava said.

There is some separation anxiety because the students are so young.

"... A lot of them that struggled coming in are really coming in now walking in and they go directly into their classroom. Teachers are waiting at their door, but they walk directly to their room and they know how to get there; no more issues like we had at the beginning, so it's very nice. I've seen that growth," Canava said.

They've learned to recognize their names, how to help each other, how to take turns, share, social skills and to use "gentle hands" — knowing the difference between being aggressive and being gentle; being nice.

"Being with kids for so long, it just takes a lot of patience because they do come around. They learn a lot. They're very quick learners and they do pick up a lot from what they see happening in the classroom; from other friends, so it's very helpful for them," Canava said.

For the future, Canava would like to have all the teaching staff in place so the classrooms are running at all times, have children there for a full year, and get the word out a little bit more so that enrollment increases.

"We are very excited to have Sandy Canava lead the charge at the Odessa Y," Mata said. "Her knowledge in educational routines and processes has allowed her to start the year off with a strong footing as she strives to put the best interest of her students first. We are looking forward to our continued partnership with the Odessa Y and are excited to see the continued growth of our prek community toward kindergarten readiness."

Together, Canava and her husband, Joel, have five children, a granddaughter and a grandson on the way.