South Side Early Learning’s Educational Laboratory is Radically Different

An in-house research program both innovates and gathers data to improve early education.

Deb Rycus
Antoine Fatout, left, with ProMusica demonstrates the glockenspiel to children at South Side Early Learning as part of the music exploration program.

At first glance, South Side Early Learning looks like a typical preschool. Hallway hooks hung with tiny backpacks. Walls full of finger-painted masterpieces and wiggly self-portraits. But look a little closer and you’ll notice something unique: a dedication to innovation, with the goal of improving both education and community well-being. 

During his Ph.D. research, Colin Page McGinnis, South Side Early Learning’s CEO, learned the importance of children’s early experiences in shaping overall health and ability to learn. The problem, as he saw it: Research findings took too long to translate into practices that could help kids. He left academia to try innovating on the ground. 

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Page McGinnis had his hands full when he took the executive director position at SSEL in 2018. The 100-year-old program, with locations inside the South Side’s Reeb Avenue Center and in the Hilltop neighborhood, was struggling financially. Its nonprofit board considered closing it down. Instead, Page McGinnis challenged them to experiment. He added an in-house research center, which collects data to inform child care practices. To run the new Center for Early Childhood Innovation, he recruited Jaclyn Dynia, a former senior research specialist at Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology. 

Jaclyn Dynia, senior director of research and innovation, uses music exploration as part of the innovative research being conducted by South Side Early Learning.

Observing how teachers often ate alongside students, Dynia crunched census data to measure food insecurity among child care workers. When the study—the first national research of its kind—revealed that a staggering 40 percent of child care workers experience some level of poverty, CECI published the data and recommendations for change. Then, taking its own advice, SSEL increased teacher wages to a minimum of $15 per hour, well above the $10 to $11 national average. Teachers also receive breakfast, lunch and a heavy snack along with their students. 

In 2019, SSEL launched a professional development institute called Project NUDL (short for Nurture, Understand, Discover, Learn). In it, SSEL teachers earn additional money as providers of professional development training for teachers around Columbus. It’s a win for the teachers in training, too. “A portion of the revenue that comes into Project NUDL, we then share out to those same organizations with the requirement that they have to invest in their staff,” says Page McGinnis. Though paused for the pandemic, he sees future opportunities for Project NUDL to benefit teachers beyond Ohio. 

At SSEL, kicking a soccer ball does more than build gross motor skills and burn off energy. It encourages literacy. A collaboration between CECI and the Final Third Foundation, the program pairs soccer drills with read-alouds to help build socioemotional and instruction-following skills. 

Another collaboration, with ProMusica, helped build a music education curriculum for toddlers and infants. CECI will evaluate both partnerships, Dynia says. “This way we will have some evidence that these programs are effective, which will be beneficial to both South Side Early Learning and the partnering organizations as the programs expand.” 

The innovations keep coming at SSEL, thanks in part to a question Page McGinnis poses regularly: “What if we were to be radically different?”  

This story is from the February 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.