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Trailblazers: Seeing the Need

Mar 29, 2016
by Bobbie Stewart

Risk-takers, trendsetters, adventurers. Whatever you call them, these Flagler College alumni are blazing their own unique trails to success.

After graduating in 2005, Education major Dani Gwiazda took a job as a public school teacher in Palm Coast, where she taught voluntary pre-kindergarten and special education curriculum for seven years.

But something was missing. Children completing the program were not adequately prepared for kindergarten.

“They were missing vital skills,” the Flagler alumna said. “They were incorrectly learning pencil grip, letter sounds and letter formation, or skills were not taught at all — putting shoes and jackets on, opening snack and lunch items, basic math and social skills.”

She wrestled with this until one day an idea came to her: “I thought, ‘Wait a second, what if I opened my own place? I’m an educator. I have children. What would I want?’”

Those questions served as the driving force behind what would become not just St. Augustine’s Island Prep, but also the philosophy behind the successful and growing school. Teachers strategically cater lessons to each student’s learning needs and offer enrichment classes that Gwiazda believes lends to a positive learning experience, such as yoga, foreign language and music.

Launching her own school wasn’t easy. There was searching for the right space, fulfilling state requirements and developing curriculum. But that didn’t deter her from moving forward.

“I never slowed down enough to go, ‘Oh no, this is big,” Gwiazda said. “I was just like, ‘Let’s embrace this, move forward and don’t sleep.’”

That sheer doggedness and focus has produced big results. Gwiazda’s St. Augustine business, billed “an eco-friendly early learning center,” has seen an increase in the number of students, from around 80 to more than 300 in four years. In 2011, she started out by renting three of four units in a plaza building on Anastasia Island, expanded to all four the following year, and ended up building an additional location not far from the first school in 2015.

The “Green” school accommodates children ages 10 months to three years of age while the second school, the “Blue” school serves as the voluntary prekindergarten and kindergarten site.

“If the parents want it, we’re going to do it,” she said, when asked why she favored more growth when by all accounts she had already achieved success. But that, to her, is something that’s dynamic and nimble, and responds to the needs of an ever-growing demand.

Today Gwiazda finds it hard to believe that close to 300 families, between the toddler and VPK/kindergarten locations, comprise the Island Prep community. It has been a labor of love that, once it started, has not stopped. She remembered the moment when the dream became a reality.

“When I turned in my notice at the school (in Palm Coast), that’s when I knew,” she said. “I went, ‘Wow, this is not an idea anymore — this is happening. I have to do this now.’”

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