REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Goss Road Child Development Center director Dionne Benjamin knew when she walked through the doors of the center for the first time just a little over a year ago that its staff offered a loving, caring and supportive environment for young children and their working parents.

She'd learned about the center from Andre Terry, chief of Child, Youth and School Services for Redstone Arsenal's Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation. She witnessed the care and concern the teachers gave to each child's personal development. She saw the smiles and friendships of the children. And she knew the trust those children's parents had placed in the center's child care program and curriculum.

Benjamin knew it was a top-notch facility that offered the best in child care services.

But it's always nice to hear that from a nationally recognized child care accreditation program.

On Dec. 4, Benjamin and Terry shared the exciting news with the Goss Road CDC staff -- the National Association for the Education of Young Children, through its Academy for Early Childhood Program Accreditation, granted a five-year accreditation renewal to the center, giving it high and, in some categories, perfect accreditation scores. Of the 672 child development centers recognized in Alabama, the Goss Road CDC is the fifth one to have its accreditation renewed.

"What you all did was no small feat. It was quite an achievement," Terry told a small group of staff in a surprise announcement (most of the staff members were with the children).

"You could not have done this without great leadership and great teamwork. You all are the role models. You exemplify what right looks like. This could not have been done without each of you. I knew you would get accredited. But you knocked it out of the park with those scores."

The achievement reflects on the excellence of a staff of more than 50 child care providers who work at a facility that can accommodate 185 children in its infant through After School Kindergarten programs.

"I had faith in the staff. Not for one minute did I worry about the classroom interaction. Many of these staff members have been here for a long time, and they have very close and supportive relationships with the children and with the children's parents," Benjamin said.

"This accreditation validates what we already know. It tells us and tells the public that we provide quality child care."

The Goss Road CDC had to meet more than 300 criteria standards in 10 areas.

To obtain accreditation renewal, the center had to meet all required criteria, meet at least 80 percent of assessed criteria for each program standard and meet at least 70 percent of assessed criteria for each classroom/group observed. But the center far exceeded those minimum requirements.

It received "100-plus" percent for meeting criteria in the areas of health, families, community relationships, and leadership and management. It received 100 percent for meeting criteria in the areas of relationships, teaching and assessment. In the area of physical environment, it met 91 percent of the criteria; in the area of curriculum, it met 88 percent of the criteria and in the area of teachers, it met 86 percent of the criteria.

The NAEYC accreditation representative observed five of the center's classrooms, with Infant 2, Infant 3, Toddler 2 and After School Kindergarten meeting 96 percent of the criteria and Preschool 1 receiving 95 percent. Other classrooms were not observed, but were reviewed through documentation provided by the center.

The center also had to provide documented evidence of all aspects of its child care program and curriculum. Criteria in each of the 10 areas had to be documented.

"People not involved in providing child care don't understand the level and depth of scrutiny in the child care field," Terry said. "The accreditation process is very, very stringent. The standards aren't the same as they were five years ago, but this CDC's seasoned employees knew how to meet those criteria."

During his comments to the staff, Terry said he wished he had a trophy to give to each of the CDC's staff members. Lacking those, though, he went on to describe each of them as the center's "trophies," the employees who have the children's care at the heart of what they do every day.

Longtime staff members like Vicki Haley, who cares for infants, and Janie Loadholt, who runs the center's After School Kindergarten program, make a difference in the lives of the center's children.

"I love the challenges. I love working with infants," Haley said. "I love seeing their development and growth, and seeing them go through all the stages while they are in the infant room. They go from being little babies to walking, talking and developing their fine and gross motor skills. We want to help them grow to the best of their ability so they are ready to go to their next classroom."

While Haley and other infant caregivers are there to help little babies grow into young children, Loadholt works at the other spectrum of early childhood education.

"As a caregiver for kindergarteners, I love for them to learn and carry with them the different characteristics -- like respect, trust and cooperation -- that will make them a better person," said Loadholt, who co-teaches with Angela Lockett.

"We have a creative curriculum and lesson plans. Besides character, we also teach Spanish and reading, help them with homework, and provide cultural diversity programs."

Both teachers hope their love, concern and support is recognized by the children's parents.

"We're here to take care of their babies," Haley said. "We want to give their children the best we can give them so that their parents can do their jobs to the best of their ability without worrying about their children."

Dedicated teachers like Haley and Loadholt are the foundation of the center's success both with accreditation and with the families the center serves.

"We all need each other to make it work," Benjamin said. "A good child care program is always prepared to be scrutinized and reviewed. You are judged on what you do every day, so if your standards are high every day, then you will succeed. You couldn't do this any differently."

Much of the documentation provided by the center was completed by its staff in the evenings and on weekends. With children at the center from 5:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. every week day, there is no time during the work day for its caregivers to compile complete documentation.

"This is where the rubber really hits the road," Terry said. "You had to work late hours to get this done, and there were Saturdays when the parking lot was full of cars because you were here working."

The NAEYC accreditation is required by the Department of the Army. Since 1985, NAEYC's national accreditation system has set professional standards for early childhood education programs, ensuring high-quality programs for children.

Besides undergoing the accreditation process this year, the Goss Road CDC also had to pass five unannounced Army inspections during the year. And, although the center staff knew it would be visited by the NAEYC sometime during 2013, the actual date was learned only 24 hours before the visit, which occurred in September.

Director Benjamin knew that 2013 would be a crucial accreditation year for the center when she took the job. With experience as a CDC director in Germany, she knew the center's staff could meet the accreditation criteria, yet she admitted that she and assistant director Linda Smith "were ecstatic" when they saw how high the scores were.

"A lot of hard work went into making sure we had the evidence for every piece of criteria they asked for," Benjamin said.

"This accreditation has been at the top of my to-do list for a year. We are at the end of this very long accreditation road. The beauty of it is that we are all set up now. There were drastic changes in child care criteria in the past five years, and we met the new standards. Now all we have to do is update what we already have and we'll be in good shape for the next accreditation."

Now that the entire staff knows about the accreditation renewal, Benjamin said the center will let its parents know about the results.

"Our parents were a part of this process, too, a huge part," she said. "They had to take surveys for our accreditation, and they all supported us through that effort."

The new Mills Road CDC will be going through the NAEYC accreditation process in 2014, and Benjamin said she and her staff will support them in their efforts.

"Child care development centers network. We all have to go through the accreditation process and when we do we learn something new. We want to share with other CDCs what we did to obtain 100 percent in many areas of the criteria," Benjamin said.

The following are the commendations made by NAEYC in the 10 areas reviewed at the Goss Road CDC:
• Relationships -- Program promotes positive relationships among all children and adults to encourage each child's sense of individual worth and belonging as part of a community and to foster each child's ability to contribute as a responsible community member.
• Teaching -- Program uses developmentally, culturally and linguistically appropriate and effective teaching approaches that enhance each child's learning and development in context of the program's curriculum goals.
• Assessment -- Program uses ongoing, systematic, formal and informal assessment approaches to provide information on children's learning and development. These assessments occur within the context of reciprocal communications with families and with sensitivity to the cultural context in which children develop. Assessment results are used to benefit children by informing sound decisions about children, teaching and program improvement.
• Health -- Program promotes the nutrition and health of children, and protects children and staff from illness and injury.
• Families -- Program has a high level of compliance with this component. Recognizing the importance of a reciprocal relationship between families and programs is essential to ensure that programs are meeting the needs of the children and families that the program serves.
• Community Relationships -- Program effectively establishes and maintains reciprocal relationships with agencies and institutions that can support it in achieving its goals for the curriculum, health promotion, children's transitions, inclusion and diversity.
• Leadership and Management -- Program is managed efficiently and effectively, ensuring that all involved persons, staff, children and families are included. The way in which a program is administered will affect all the interactions within the program.