Tiny Cap and Gown at Duke Children’s Campus Graduation Signals Bright Futures

Campus graduates 27 children and their families celebrate the end of their prekindergarten era

Duke Children's Campus students as they walk into their graduation celebration clapping to music.
A blue child-sized graduation gown hangs from a stroller in the foreground of parents sitting at a Duke Children's Campus ceremony
Emerson Chamberlain's miniature graduation gown hangs from her younger brother's stroller during the Duke Children's Campus celebration. Photo by Travis Stanley.

Emerson is on to kindergarten in the fall, but she and 26 other 4- and 5-year-olds who attend Duke Children’s Campus recognized the end of their prekindergarten years with a celebration at Durham Central Park on May 23.

Duke Children’s Campus is a five star-rated child care center on campus for the exclusive use of Duke faculty, staff and students. The facility is managed by Bright Horizons Family Solutions, and 161 children ranging in age from six weeks to 5 years old attend.

“It's a wonderful benefit for the families because they can go to work secure knowing that their child is taken care of,” said Rachael Tonneson, Center Director of Duke Children’s Campus. “Not only are we a child care center, but we're in an early education learning center. Our goal is to build a foundation because it’s the start of the child’s educational journey.”

In addition to the Duke Children’s Campus, parents who work at Duke University and Duke University Health System have greater access to quality child care through the Duke Child Care Partnership. Duke Partnership Centers offer priority placement to Duke faculty, staff and students, and must maintain a four or five star license and be in good standing with the state of North Carolina and the Child Care Services Association.

At the Duke Children’s Campus last week, kids showed off some of what they’ve learned in a presentation that included a procession to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” complete with overhead clapping, a recitation of their “HEART principles” (Honesty, Excellence, Accountability, Respect and Teamwork – to make the dream work), and an impossibly adorable dance to “What I Am” by Will I Am that featured group arm flexing and shimmying.

5-year-old kids stand and flex their arms during a performance
Duke Children's Campus graduates Alix Belanger, left front, and Alex Liu, right front, flex during a performance at the end of their celebration on May 23. Photo by Travis Stanley.

Much like the college seniors about 17 years older who recently graduated from Duke, many of these children started their time at Duke Children’s Campus in the throes of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Even as much of the world shut down, the Duke Children’s Campus day care center remained open for essential workers who needed the services.

“It was very rewarding because parents were so thankful to be able to have a secure place for their children so they could go off to do their necessary work in hospitals and clinics,” Tonneson said.

Kristina Eilbacher, a Duke Physician Assistant and Director in the Center for Advanced Practice, said the Duke Children’s Campus was a lifesaver for her 5-year-old son, Lennox Pantola. Her extended family lives in New York, and she needed a reliable source of child care while she and her husband both worked in the medical field throughout the early days of the pandemic.

“I literally don’t know how we would have survived without them,” Eilbacher said. “I was extremely grateful.”

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