English major Jennifer Brown Carter, Wittenberg class of 1994, thought she’d be a journalist, but notions of being a teacher nagged at her daily.
She decided to minor in education and found that educating others was definitely her vocation after teaching in western Kenya for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduation. Carter now has 25 years of experience in education, and today owns and serves as the executive director of Oak Tree Learning Center San Bernardino and Oak Tree View Park Windsor Hills in California, where she has designed her own curriculum focused on progressive hands-on learning to support her students’ growth and development.
“I worked at a few other places in between, including with a LA private progressive school and as a house parent at a school in Santa Monica where I also taught English at the school,” said Carter, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband Leighton Carter, Wittenberg class of 1995, and their son, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College. Leighton, a math and business major at Wittenberg, currently works at a money management company called Aristotle Capital.
Inspired by John Dewey and the idea of creating authentic experiences for students, Carter took a challenge and turned it into a new career.
“When Leighton lost his job in 2016 and the company went bankrupt, I literally Googled ‘buy a business’ and looked at education and finance,” she explained. “Through Google and God – Oak Tree was available to buy. It really wasn’t on my mind, but I was interested in researching how meshing curricula, teaching, and assessment all worked together. We knew we had to run the school, and so I spent the first two years focused on creating curriculum, assessment tools, etc. We started making a name for ourselves, and I put together a book on designing a curriculum and worked on getting more schools to adopt this curriculum.”
The book, “Meaningful Assessment-Ready Experiences for PreK Students” has become Carter’s objective for the Oak Tree Learning Center, along with providing a safe, high-quality learning program for all children in a loving environment. Children are encouraged to grow and develop confidence in themselves and their abilities in all areas through hands-on learning and exploration at her schools. She designed her curriculum to develop social, emotional, cognitive, language, motor, and self-development skills. The lesson plans are based on monthly themes and include activities in language, music and movement, math and science, reading readiness, and creative art.
“I became very interested in progressive education, and I believe assessment is always important to keep track of how children are doing and if they’ve mastered what they are being taught,” said Carter, a Cleveland native, who earned her M.S. in instructional leadership and curriculum design from Neumann College in Aspen, Pennsylvania. “We combine a healthy ecosystem of learning – engaging children in a way that they don’t really realize that they are learning – that’s what we focus on. Every student is an active participant in everything that happens at school. And going into our third year of business, we are finding that are kids are ahead.”
Instead of just acknowledging Women’s History Month or Earth Day in the traditional way, each student is involved in planning and preparing for events which celebrate the monthly themes. For example, during Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, each child was involved in a service project.
“Our four-year-olds did blessing bags and hygiene bags, and with each one they put together, they had to count, sort, and write the list out,” she said. “Our two- and three-year-olds painted signs, and everyone was involved in some way from moving a package to collecting items for the package. This drive received hundreds of donations with strangers dropping off things from all over. It was an example of project-based learning, carefully coordinated that made the students use math, fine motor skills, writing, and reading. We target skills and build on them.”
When they opened in May of 2018, they started with 65 students. Now they have two schools – one in San Bernardino and the other in the Los Angeles area – and have grown to more than 130 students and close to 20 employees. The school in San Bernardino has pre-school for ages 2 to 5 and a K-7 school-age program, while LA offers the pre-school for now with a possible infant center forthcoming.
While all three of the Carters are still involved with the school in some way, Jennifer recently had to a take a step back from the teaching part of her business.
“I was poised to go to several conferences to present my ideas about our curriculum design to others before COVID hit,” Carter said. “Even though we have remained open because we are a privately owned pre-school and deemed essential workers, I realized that there were a lot of things I was neglecting as a business owner. I needed to hire more people, do more promoting, make sure the Cares Act and the PPP loans were there for our employees, etc. I shifted out of being a pre-school teacher and director to being a business owner. Some of the hardest parts of opening a school include helping ourselves and promoting ourselves. I enrolled in a program to learn how to start and run a business and write a better business plan. COVID helped me to do that and was a blessing in that way. Because I’m an overachiever, I also spent a lot of time working on it. I devised a plan to transform me from director to CEO, then started doing podcasts and other videos to help those doing distance-learning.”
Her more than 25 podcasts, titled “Mrs. C's Podcast for Parents, Teachers and Administrators,” discuss ideas and address questions about parenting and education. Oak Tree Learning Center videos encourage shared experiences that deepen learning and offer quality time with children. Other programs the school offers include Oak Tree At Home to extend experience-based learning to families outside of the center using Common Core programming beginning with preschool standards up to grade six. Each series inspires young learners to create useful projects and figure out where to find the tools they need to do it.
“I think my experience at Wittenberg really helped me,” said Carter, a first-generation student. “Wittenberg has an amazing teacher preparation program. Every professor I had was just amazing. Being able to get into the classroom right away was also a plus. I remember thinking about how doing lesson plans seemed terrible back then, but it’s so easy now because I was taught well and know the basics and essentials of lesson planning Wittenberg was so writing-intensive, and it made me write with clarity and precision. I can track so many of my skills that I’m good at to learning at Wittenberg.”
For more information on Carter’s schools, visit www.oaktreelearningcenter.com