The three beautiful playgrounds at Branches Community School on Broad Street tell you a lot about the school itself. The infant and toddler playground boasts a miniature stage, a sound garden, and digging tools in a natural sandbox. The preschool playground has stepping stones made of tires and an extensive play kitchen, and the garden playground is complete with raised beds, a walk-through trellis, and the shade of a giant oak tree. Perhaps the most special thing about these outdoor spaces is that they were imagined and hand built by the parent community at Branches. The playgrounds were a creative collaboration between parents and teachers, a process that mirrors the experiential learning philosophy that infuses all aspects of the school.
Beth Branciforte has spent years envisioning this environment for young children, and the enthusiasm she feels in making that vision a reality is palpable. Beth’s mother recently retired after thirty years as an early childhood education director, so Beth was raised with the idea that children deserve the right to high quality environments and high quality caregivers. She grew up, also, with the understanding that children have a great deal to offer their communities. Went Beth went off to college, she explored several other avenues of learning, but kept coming back to her own unique gift for working with young children. Twelve years ago, Beth came to Durham on a whim and discovered the opportunity to work in a wonderful preschool and help build it’s program. She kept searching, though, for the right building to house her own preschool, and this year, she finally found the right place, right here in the Ninth Street District.
The Branches mission is to create a space for children that feels like home, provides access to the community, and offers opportunities to learn with dedicated teachers in natural environments. This mission is based on the Reggio Emilia approach, a philosophy largely based on relationships and collaborative learning through which children gain a wealth of knowledge and resources. Reggio celebrates the individual child and his or her learning styles and needs. Each day, the thirty children at Branches will be encouraged to follow their natural curiosities. As Beth points out, children are natural learners — all they need are environments where they can explore, create, and problem solve. The children will be outside gardening and composting; they will use open-ended materials like rocks, shells, water, sand, and clay as tools for learning; they’ll engage in process-based art, including a woodworking curriculum Beth designed especially for children; and they’ll visit places like the fire station and local bake shop to get to know their neighbors. A key value of the Branches school is to connect to and reflect the community of Durham. The school has a diverse group of teachers and families as well as a community board interested in pursuing deeper conversations about education in the community.
The name Branches speaks to the school’s focus on community and the way that students and teachers will branch out beyond their walls and their building to engage with their surroundings. The idea isn’t just that children benefit from community, but also that the community benefits from children. By taking kids into adult spaces, people are able to see the unique competencies and capabilities of children. The name is also linked to the Sicilian last name Beth shares with her wife Gia Branciforte, which means “strong arms,” a wonderful image for a community that cares for and supports children. There's a beautiful idea in Reggio that early childhood is not a preparation for life, but that early childhood is the child’s life. Branches certainly seems like a wonderful place for them to live it.
Beth and the entire Branches community welcome you for a visit any time you’re in the neighborhood. They can’t wait to celebrate early childhood with their community.
A little more about Beth:
Tools of the trade Beth can’t live without are her drill and toolbox. In early childhood education, there’s a joke that the director is the electrician, the cleaner, the plumber, the teacher, the organizer. True to this description, Beth is real renaissance woman. She’s teaching the other educators how to use tools so that they can be a part of bringing the school to life.
When she’s not at Branches, Beth is probably with her wife camping and backpacking in the North Carolina mountains. They love to unplug and reconnect with nature. Beth also greatly values food and fellowship; she and Gia love to cook and host community dinners in their home.
Beth’s favorite books are those in the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, a set of tales about a neighborhood woman who helps children solve problems using creative and surprising methods. Just like Reggio teachers, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle gives kids magic tools for dealing with problems they encounter.
Merchant Profiles are written by Kate Van Dis of Kate Van Dis Creative Content