FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Years of hard work have paid off for the employees of Fort Drum's Chapel Drive Annex Child Development Center.

The facility earned accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children last month after a demanding process that measured the overall quality of the center's early childhood programs in everything from classroom management and appropriate teacher interactions to parent rapport and community relationships.

"Achieving NAEYC accreditation is not an easy process. It requires an in-depth look at all aspects of a program," said Karin S. Sikirica, who as the Child, Youth and School Services coordinator oversees an integrated campus of nine CYSS centers on post. "This was a huge accomplishment that was a true team effort."

Since 1985, NAEYC has offered accreditation to help early childhood professionals meet set standards while helping families identify high-quality programs.

AnneMarie Clegg, Chapel Drive Annex CDC director, said the accreditation process helped validate child care standards the Army already has in place and ensured across-the-board excellence.

"Going through this over the last two to three years has been an intense endurance," Clegg said. "But I've been really blessed in that our team has been together through this whole thing. We all came with strengths and our own weaknesses, but our gifts are what got us all through it.

"Knowing that we are able to achieve that excellence, and maintain it, is quite an accomplishment," she added. "We are tiny, but we are mighty."

Helping teachers to prepare their classrooms and themselves for the inspection was the job of CYSS trainers, who focused on 10 NAEYC-assessed areas of early childhood education: relationships, curriculum, teaching, assessment of child progress, health, teachers, families, community relationships, physical environment, and leadership and management.

Clegg said her staff conducted training every Saturday for a year to prepare. When the time came to let the inspectors in, nerves for everyone at Chapel Drive Annex CDC were frazzled.

"It was nail-biting," said Brittney Fults, Chapel Drive Annex CDC training specialist. "They want the highest qualities -- from ceiling to floor.

"We actually had to stay in the background -- it was the teachers' show," she added. "So we just hoped that everything we had trained the teachers on was going to come through."

The center scored a remarkable 98 out of 100. Inspectors praised the center's leaders for the thoroughness, quality and content of their portfolios: three-ring binders, each several inches thick, meticulously outlining Chapel Drive Annex CDC operations.

Clegg said success is attributable to not only her staff's commitment but also the strong support of the Fort Drum community.

"Our parents were really the ones who helped us to get to the end of the race," she said. "Whether it was through kudos and words of encouragement or food and sustenance, the whole community was what helped us pull through. They were the ones saying: 'You can do this. We are proud of you.'"

Clegg said preparation for the final accreditation inspection was not only painstaking but also "life-changing."

"It questions your dedication," she said. "It questions your passion for working with children."

She also said she welcomed the introspection along the way, explaining that it forced her staff of 25 to never forget how working with children is a "calling" and not just a paycheck.

"You truly have to be committed," she said. "I refer to this work as a labor of love, because you really have to be passionate and committed to early childhood development and providing a standard of excellence in your (workplace)."

The Chapel Drive Annex CDC can serve up to 120 children a day, half of whom attend "Strong Beginnings" pre-kindergarten classes while the other half attend before- and after-school programs for kindergartners.

Despite demand for child care more than doubling at Fort Drum in recent years, the installation continues to exceed Army standards -- which require CYSS facilities to meet 80 percent of demand.

In just the last three years, Fort Drum has added two full-day CDCs on post, one on Po Valley Road and another on South Riva Ridge Loop.

Along with the Chapel Drive Annex CDC and the fully renovated Memorial CDC (which received its NAEYC accreditation in 2011), the Po Valley CDC was notified last week that it is next in line to begin the process of accreditation.

Clegg said it was a relief to complete the process, but that the hard work of her staff paid off.

"I am really just honored and proud to be working side by side with everybody here at the annex," she said. "Knowing we can soar, and shine, that's been kind of our mantra. So we are shining pretty brightly."