About 40 years ago, Barbara Watson stumbled upon a preschool tucked away in Coral Gables.
She was riding her bicycle with her then 2-year-old daughter when she passed the school, surrounded by palm and oak trees.
Shortly after, I asked for a job, Watson said.
Watson is retiring after 39 years with the Early Childhood Center at the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ. Its the church across from the Biltmore Hotel.
For the past 29 years Watson has led the preschool, a period when the schools enrollment doubled and its campus expanded.
Watson received her degree in elementary education from the University of Maryland and taught third grade in a small Maryland community in the late-1960s. She moved to Miami in 1969 with her husband David. In 1974, she began teaching part-time at the preschool. Both of her children attended the school, and starting in the fall, her granddaughter will attend.
One of her biggest challenges was transitioning from elementary education to early childhood education.
You have to understand little children and really how to work with them, she said.
Under her leadership, the preschool became a nationally accredited preschool of excellence through the National Academy of Early Childhood programs.
We thought it was daunting and difficult to do then, she said, but weve been able to maintain a staff with continuity.
Hiring the preschool teachers and aides has been one of the highlights of her career.
I often hired parents who had educational backgrounds and loved the school, she said.
Take Vanett Colom. Her two children attended the preschool. As a parent, Colom noticed how Watson was involved in every school-related activity.
She now has been teaching there for 12 years.
Shes always been an authority and a friend a good combination for a boss, she said.
Colom teaches cooking to 3-year-olds, a class that involves fun, science, math, reading and art. She said Watson is aware of everything and always there to help. Not all bosses work alongside you, she said.
Before working at the school, Colom was a graphic designer for Miami Dade Colleges Early Childhood Center. She remembers walking into Watsons office with her son and seeing one of the programs she designed.
She was very open, very warm, Colom said. I always quote her when she says, We dont have 104 students; we have 104 families.
Lily Juncadella, another teacher, described Watson as being the kind of boss who understands how to be a mom, a teacher and a wife.
Enrollment increased from about 50 to 100 students under her leadership. The staff size grew from six employees in the 1970s to 22 today.
I am proud that we have built a warm and welcoming program of early childhood education which is financially stable, based on professional standards and is recognized and respected in the community, she said in a press release.
Watson has been working with incoming director Janet Hiles for about 15 years. When asked if shes given Hiles any advice, she responded, Its often the other way around.
Shes looking forward to watching her granddaughter, Gia, blossom at the school.
Shes going to love it, just like all of the children do, Watson said. Its all for her.