Idenna Russell Pave the Way: Center for Exceptional Learners

Idenna Russell, middle, is the CEO of new preschool company Pave the Way: Center for Exceptional Learners. She is scouting Goodyear, Avondale and Litchfield Park as potential sites for the first one, which she is looking to open by April 2020. Russell is pictured with her family.

A new West Valley company is hoping to bring preschools that cater to children with special needs to the region.

And Goodyear, Avondale and Litchfield Park are in its founder’s sights.

Launched by CEO Idenna Russell in June, preschool company Pave the Way: Center for Exceptional Learners plans to have its first location built and operational by April 2020.

And while Russell’s goal is to eventually bring the brand — for children ages 2 to 5 — to a nationwide level, she is proud to start in Arizona.

“At this time we’re looking for the first location to be in the West Valley, of course,” Russell said. “It’s taken some time to find outdoor areas to play, but we’re looking at either Goodyear, Litchfield (Park) or Avondale.”

In her 23 years spent with children and education, Russell has learned about special needs children’s struggles with transitioning to grade school. She has taught students from as young as kindergarten to as old as post-secondary school. She already has bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but is looking to complete a second master’s degree in special education this December.

“I have learned in my educational journey that when our (children) aren’t as successful as they would like to be on day-to-day tasks — and we’re talking anything from taking a fork from the table and putting it into the sink, putting their clothes on or being able to put things in order — it makes it very difficult to transition into a general education classroom,” Russell said.

The mother of four’s inspiration to start Pave the Way came from past experiences with her youngest daughter.

“My newest-born had seizures at 2 weeks old, and as a parent who had fairly healthy children, this experience was very new to us. I remember her being flown from the East Coast to John Hopkins hospital — with her little 2-week self — and them saying there was a possibility that she may have some challenges develop mentally because she had lost oxygen from the seizures,” said Russell, whose children are now ages 3 to 14.

This left Russell and her husband with many questions.

“Both me and husband thought, ‘What is going to happen? Who is going to watch her? What if this is more severe than we think? How will we take care of her?’” she said.

But it wasn’t just her youngest daughter who had given Russell inspiration. Many families face these same concerns when raising children with mental disabilities.

“I started doing some research, having a nephew who’s only 8 years old, and he had service providers but he did not have a preschool setting that could solely take care of his age group,” Russell said.

“I also have a cousin whose parents pulled him out of the preschool environment and brought him home because they could afford to do that. But 90% of the population cannot afford a private institution.”

According to Russell, the first challenge toddlers with mental delays have to overcome is potty training, and parents who have children with mental delays often find themselves in tough situations when it comes to finding resources to take care of their child — something Russell had to find out herself.

“I started to call various preschools and I would say, ‘Hey, I have a child who is 3 years old who’s not potty trained and who is not talking,’” Russell said.

“But the first (strike) out for the general population preschools is that a child, by the age of 3, needs to be potty trained. Therefore, a number of (children) are home with an individual who really can’t provide the services they need: speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, dance therapy. None of these things are actually coming into the home.”

Most children with special needs are treated with these special services. But many families have to look to outside companies. Russell hopes to change that with Pave the Way.

“Pave the Way is offering those services, incorporated within the school day for the preschool setting,” Russell said. “Therefore, the children are being more exposed to the service providers, increasing their chances for more success when they get into kindergarten.”

With Russell also being a dance instructor, she hopes to incorporate fine arts into the preschool curriculum.

“I really believe that children — especially young children — should have the performing arts integrated in a hands-on environment,” Russell said.

In terms of cost, Pave the Way will be structured like the standard preschool, with prices ranging from $150 to $300 dollars a week. However, Russell wants to make future preschools accessible to all families, regardless of background. She is currently making efforts to do exactly that.

“We will be applying to the state so that parents who are also receiving services can get funding through the Department of Human Services,” Russell said. “That is really important — to become registered with our state — because those that are in under-privileged areas will also have access.”

Russell is excited for the future of preschool education for toddlers who have been diagnosed with mental disabilities. 

“We want to give every child an opportunity to be successful when they transition into kindergarten,” Russell said. “We want to partner with our public school teachers and families and say, ‘Hey, we’re here. We’re not in competition, but we are here so that the children who are coming to your district have a leg up on how to manage in the classroom.’”

Russell continued, “‘Here is a safe place with people who know the type of people are coming in, and they are prepared to have a class full of 3-year-olds who have mild to moderate special needs.’”

With a little over half a year until Pave the Way’s anticipated opening, the preschool’s team will in the meantime host numerous fundraisers. Through these fundraisers, set over the remainder of 2019, Russell hopes to increase materials for future preschool locations.

“Our fundraising is going to go towards classroom materials, hands-on materials and services,” Russell said. “Services are super important for our schools because we want to incorporate that in the everyday life of the child — which doesn’t happen. Our goal is to increase exposure of services to these children who may only get an hour a week, whether it’s in speech therapy or occupational therapy.”

The first fundraiser is set from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, September 28, at Peter Piper Pizza, 1463 N. Dysart Road, Avondale.

For those interested in sponsoring classroom materials or a service provider, Russell plans to post forms online. For more information or to sponsor Pave the Way’s efforts, visit pavethewaycenter.com.