New interdisciplinary center will boost early childhood learning

Efforts to provide high-quality, early learning experiences for Florida’s youngest children received a major boost recently when UF announced the creation of an interdisciplinary Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies.


December 14, 2010



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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The growing movement to provide high-quality, early learning experiences for Florida’s youngest children received a major boost Tuesday (Dec. 14) when the University of Florida announced the creation of an interdisciplinary Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies.

UF officials said the campuswide center will be a model training, demonstration and research site where UF scholars—in fields as diverse as education, medicine, law, public health and the life sciences—will work with local, state and national partners on issues pertaining to young children and their families.

Their collective mission: to advance the science and practice of early childhood development and early learning.

UF Provost Joseph Glover said the center is a joint effort by the College of Education, Baby Gator Child Development and Research Center, the College of Medicine and UF’s Office of Human Resource Services.

The center’s creation is the culmination of work that started with the 2007 appointment of world-class scholar Patricia Snyder to the College of Education’s David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies. Snyder was charged with mobilizing the university’s top specialists in early childhood studies for collaborative research and training activities.

“We are organizing the center as a comprehensive early learning campus, with young children learning in a high-quality environment,” said Snyder, the center’s founding director.

The College of Education will initially house the center’s administrative offices in Norman Hall, with Baby Gator–UF’s early education and care program for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers—serving as the primary “hub” of center activities. Both Baby Gator campus facilities will participate.

Snyder said future plans call for building a third, state-of-the-art Baby Gator facility with ample space for all center administration and childcare activities, at a site yet to be determined.

Snyder is one of the nation’s foremost authorities in early childhood studies. She came to UF from Vanderbilt University, where she directed research at its Center for Child Development. Locally, Snyder is on the Alachua County steering committee for the Children’s Movement of Florida, formed to spotlight the development and education of young children as Florida’s top priority.

Pamela Pallas, Baby Gator director since 2003, also joins the leadership team. Pallas has steered Baby Gator’s reorganization from a more traditional childcare facility into a nationally recognized and accredited child development and research center. Baby Gator’s two centers currently serve 240 children from 6 weeks to 5 years old, with a waiting list of more than 200 children.

(Pictured at right, Snyder (l) reads to 1-year-old William Pugh, while Pallas (r) reads to classmate Sophia Lingis.)

Snyder said UF pediatrics professors Marylou Behnke and Fonda Davis Eyler, who co-direct the North Central Florida Early Steps program (supporting infants and toddlers with disabilities), and UF education professor Maureen Conroy, also will play key leadership roles in research and the clinical training of graduate students. They are already collaborating on early prevention and intervention studies for young children with or at risk for disabilities, including autism.

“We’ll be developing the next generation of early-childhood studies leaders, creating new doctoral programs and forming an infant-toddler (birth-age 3) specialization track in our early education programs,” Snyder said.

To receive formal center designation, the Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies required approval from the provost and Vice President for Research Win Phillips. Over the next two years, the center will receive nearly $250,000 in combined seed money from UF’s Office of Sponsored Research, College of Education, Office of Human Resource Services (which oversees Baby Gator) and the Lawrence endowment fund.

UF Education Dean Catherine Emihovich said the new center reflects a commitment to unify and elevate an already strong program at UF into the top tier of nationally recognized programs in early childhood studies.

“Children begin learning from the moment they are born. Yet one in three children in the United States enters school unprepared to learn, and many never catch up,” Emihovich said. “This center fills a critical gap in addressing a key educational priority identified by both the state of Florida and the nation,”

Also instrumental in the center’s formation is David Lawrence Jr., a UF alumnus and the namesake of Snyder’s endowed chair. Since retiring in 1999 as publisher of the Miami Herald, Lawrence has devoted his life to promoting early child education and well-being. He holds an academic appointment as a UF Scholar and is president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Miami, which currently partners with UF in a massive school-readiness and early-learning effort in Dade County schools.

Building a real movement for the early childhood years requires great examples of high quality and real research—and this (center) does both,” Lawrence said.

Local children’s advocates also expect the center to have a dramatic impact on early learning in North Central Florida.

“I am thrilled to learn about this center,” said Karen Bricklemyer, president and CEO of United Way of North Central Florida. “Tackling early education for at-risk children requires a community-wide effort, and United Way devotes significant resources to this cause through initiatives like ‘Success by 6” and program funding. We look to research conducted at the University of Florida to let us know our strategies will make an impact. We look forward to working with UF’s new center to ensure that all children in our community have access to high-quality, early learning experiences.”


Source: Patricia Snyder, Professor and David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies, UF College of Education; 352-273-4291;

Source: Pam Pallas, Director of Baby Gator Child Development and Research Center, and Clinical Associate Professor in the College of Education, University of Florida; 352-392-2330;

Writer/Media Contact: Larry Lansford, director, UF College of Education news & communication, 352-273-4137;