Preschoolers dig their gloved hands into a pile of dirt filled with earthworms — and a science lesson taking shape between their fingers. Their teacher, Miss Flynn, is right in there with them, donning blue rubber gloves and offering encouraging words.

A young girl smiles as she touches an earthworm

Flynn helps kids at Ross Center preschool learn about Earth Day during a classroom lesson focused on science.

Miss Flynn is Elizabeth Flynn, ’17, a new family and consumer sciences alumna who took hold of a classroom four months before taking hold of her diploma. She describes herself as an “enthusiastic, hands-on, let’s get messy educator” and sees potential in every child.

Since January, Flynn has called herself student and teacher, after she was selected to head the preschool at Ross Community Center, specifically for children in the Thomas/Avondale neighborhood. It’s an area on Muncie’s south side that has faced a number of challenges, including few affordable, high-quality preschools.

That changed when Flynn, the 2017 Outstanding Student in Child Development, began looking for a paid internship. Instead, Huffer Child Care Resource and Referral, tapped her to create and lead the Ross Center preschool.

“Normally, internships do not include setting up and running the programs, but Elizabeth is a highly skilled student,” said Kresha Warnock, Flynn’s internship coordinator, and a Child Study Center instructor.

“Elizabeth was a perfect fit and didn’t need a lot of help. She was well equipped from the start,” agreed Liane Nickey, director of Huffer’s child care referral service, which is part of Huffer Memorial Children’s Center. She had high expectations for Flynn and has not been disappointed.

“Elizabeth was exactly what we needed.”

Preparing children for kindergarten

Once she got the nod, Flynn took on every aspect of the project, from classroom setup to curriculum planning. What started as a bare classroom has over the course of several weeks turned into a cozy space for kids. A reading nook sits in one corner, paper lanterns adorn the ceiling, and tiny tables, chairs and other items cluster in various parts of the room.

A young girl throws a plastic bottle into the recycling bin

Daniel Skora, a Ball State student majoring in early childhood education, directs a game where preschoolers learn about recycling.

“I am truly inspired by the passion each child has to learn,” Flynn said. “Each day the children come in eager to get started.”

The preschool program has a kindergarten readiness checklist provided by Muncie Community Schools, and children have made great strides in a short time, especially in learning social skills and appropriate behavior, Nickey said.

Their families benefit from the new preschool, too. To participate, parents volunteered in the classroom and attended the Parent Café. Each Tuesday evening for 14 weeks, parents met with Flynn and an educator who specializes in students with significant challenges to work on issues such as emotional and social wellness.

“Some parents had reservations at first. You know, one more thing to add to the list of things to do,” Nickey said. “However, now they love it. They hear their kids having fun, and they are really involved. Elizabeth is a great role model for the parents as well as the kids; she’s so patient and kind with them. The kids are just so engaged and happy.”

Elizabeth Flynn helps a young girl glue flowers onto paper

The Ross Center can accommodate about 10 children but already has a waitlist of more than 15 families.

One mother told Nickey that the preschool let her go back to school — she was just waiting for the right opportunity, and the Ross Center program was it. Now, The Ross Community Center is working to secure funding so the preschool can continue in the fall.

Inspiration from Mom

The path to the front of Flynn’s own classroom started more than four years ago with research she did when selecting a university. She wanted a challenge and hands-on opportunities, and she found them at Ball State.

“The family and consumer science program has allowed me to grow outside of my comfort zone, both professionally and academically,” Flynn said. “My professors have made a huge impact on my learning styles, teaching methods and successes. I’m so thankful for instructors — including Jennifer Young, Kresha Warnock, Jill Walls and Shu Su — who have impacted my education, professionalism and experiences at Ball State.”

Elizabeth Flynn smiles as she's surrounded by young students

The average per-child cost of preschool in Indiana is more than $6,000 per year. Thanks to the free Ross Center program, children have access to high-quality child care they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Flynn also credits her mother, Joni, with instilling in her a love for teaching children. She said her career path was inspired by her mom’s, who has run an in-home child care center for more than 20 years.

“She chose to quit her job and stay home with me full time. Shortly after, she started her business. Now, 22 years later, I come home to a house full of kids, whom I consider family.

“For now, I am continuing to find my path in this field. I am having the greatest time, and I do not know where this might lead me,” Flynn said. “In the future, I continue to see myself working with children and families, and I look forward to what is in store.”