Naples center fills need for early childhood learning in Collier

4 – minute read

Until recently, 95-year-old Lori Mansell hadn’t been in a classroom since she stopped teaching 25 years ago. At the request of one of her daughters, she came out of retirement to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle to children in a Naples classroom.


“I’m proud to say all three of my daughters went into education,” says Mansell, who taught students from first grade through junior college in Illinois, Indiana and California. “But Diana went a little farther than the rest of us.”


Mansell is the mother of Diana Cheshire, who joined Florida Gulf Coast University last year as the College of Education dean. With Mansell and FGCU President Aysegul Timur among the many attendees, Cheshire and her team celebrated the reopening of the newly renovated Early Childhood Development Center in Naples April 12 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

woman reading a book to children
Lori Mansell reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to children at the Early Childhood Development Center in Naples. Photo: Laurie Babcock.

The partnership between the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF) and FGCU’s College of Education is designed to support the teaching and learning of young children by providing high quality early childhood education and care to children and their families in Collier County. NCEF donated $2 million to open the Naples center, which joins the Little Eagles Learning Center as one of two FGCU-managed early childhood development centers.


“I consider the centers to be extensions of the College of Education that serve the community and get our education majors and other FGCU students into a setting to do practicums and conduct research,” Cheshire says.

The centers offer FGCU students opportunities to put their knowledge into practice, learn from real-life experiences and make a difference in children’s lives.


“They are our learning laboratories,” she says.


Each center serves its respective community in Fort Myers and Naples by accepting children from 6 weeks to 5 years old. They also allow FGCU students and faculty to conduct research and training as part of what Cheshire calls the College of Education’s “lab school” philosophy. Through this model, FGCU students complete internships at schools across Southwest Florida and 100% secure jobs upon graduating.


The Naples center is on the Collier County campus of Florida SouthWestern State College. It’s licensed by the Florida Department of Children and Families and earned a Gold Seal Program certification from the State of Florida Southwest Early Learning Coalition. The facility has seven classrooms, a large activity room and an open atrium area for arts education. The research-based early childhood curriculum includes language arts, early literacy, dramatic play, music, art, science and motor skill development activities.

Diana Cheshire, dean of FGCU's College of Education
Diana Cheshire
Photo: Rachel Luckey

Through developmentally appropriate activities, FGCU students help the Naples center serve up to 93 children.


One of those children is 3-year-old Natalia Lora, who wore an FGCU T-shirt and sat with her teachers and classmates to hear Mansell read on the day of the ribbon cutting.


Natalia’s father, Pedro Lora, is one of the development directors at WGCU Public Media, Southwest Florida’s public radio and television broadcasting station based at FGCU. Lora (’14, business management and business marketing) and his wife, Laura, attended Collier County schools. He says they chose the Naples center primarily because of its teaching style and methods and his personal connection to FGCU.


He says he’s been impressed with the facility, as well as the knowledge and skills their daughter has gained in a short time.

the Early Childhood Development Center in Naples
FGCU President Aysegul Timur, right, joined the celebration at the Early Childhood Development Center in Naples. Photo: Chris Noonan.

“This week, they learned how caterpillars become butterflies. Even though that’s something so mundane, it’s something that you might not think about in terms of teaching your kids,” Lora says. “Plus, we primarily speak to her in Spanish at home and her English skills have greatly improved.”


Lora says that he and his wife initially struggled to find day care for Natalia. “A lot of places were closing or they had a two-year waitlist,” he says.


“Once we heard that this place was opening up, we just jumped on board.”


The child care industry faces challenges such as affordability for families, workforce shortages due to low pay and lack of benefits for educators, and insufficient funding leading to financial pressures on providers. Cheshire says these issues highlight the significance of initiatives like the Naples center in offering essential support to children and families in Collier County.


“The NCEF center is direct outreach to the local community serving Collier County and trying to address the shortage of early childhood development centers,” Cheshire says. “We could not have done this without NCEF’s generous support.”


As the ribbon was cut April 12, the Naples center formally became the latest learning laboratory for FGCU students — and Natalia Lora and her classmates officially became the newest little Eagles.

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