Raising the Bar in ECE in Minnesota – the Westwood Lutheran Early Learning Center Story

Educa Talks to Westwood Lutheran Early Learning Center Director, Kellee Nelson

“Creating our curriculum was a process but it is clear to the State that our school is committed to weaving observation and assessment into our work with children.”

It is no wonder that this Lutheran Learning Center has hundreds of children on their waiting list.

Westwood Early Childhood Learning Center in St, Louis Park, Minnesota is setting new standards in early education. It is a Lutheran early learning center with a Reggio inspired approach. It focuses on exploration of nature and parent collaboration to build essential learner dispositions. Westwood is ELEA and NAEYC-accredited.

Educa recently sat down with Westwood’s director, Kellee Nelson.

Kellee attributes her lifetime commitment to the field of education to her upbringing. “I come from a family of educators and have been surrounded by education my entire life.”

Over the years, Kellee’s passion for teaching grew as she worked in schools throughout the United States.

Kellee’s experiences include working at centers in Chapel Hill, NC, serving as an academic advisor and instructor at Concordia University, St. Paul, and as a site director at Google’s Children’s Centers in Mountain View, CA. In 2014, while pursuing a doctoral degree in education, Kellee became the second director in Westwood’s 35-year history.

Multiple Inspirations Inform Curriculum

“There is a strong sense of community here and that is visible throughout the environment.”

What drew Kellee to Westwood Early Childhood Center was the strong Lutheran faith component, Reggio inspiration, and the Nature Explorer certification. The Reggio Approach and Lutheran faith go “hand in hand.” Like Westwood’s founder Marilyn Stalheim, Kellee is active in the Reggio Inspired Network of Minnesota.

Since the Reggio Emilia Approach does not have a set curriculum, Kellee worked with her community to develop Westwood’s own research-based curriculum. The state approved Westwood’s curriculum after a series of discussions and visits by Parent Aware.

Kellee is pleased that the Reggio Emilia Approach in early childhood education is more mainstream now. When interacting with educators just ten years ago, people would often give her “strange looks” when she mentioned the Reggio Emilia Approach.  Now, there is momentum behind the student-centered philosophy and curriculum.

Values and Respect

“Reggio is based on values, not specific outcomes. We commit to weaving observation and assessment into our work with children.”

At Westwood, classrooms and offices are designed to encourage communication between teachers and curriculum specialists. “I think there is something really magical about Westwood Early Childhood Center. When you arrive, you see beautiful child created images on the halls and in the classrooms, you hear happy children, and you see collaboration between teachers.”

Recently Westwood embarked on a major construction project to improve safety and security. In the process, staff re-examined classroom and workspaces to find ways to encourage collaboration.

In true Reggio form, children are involved in any project at Westwood. Displaced from their classrooms for almost 5 months, the children chose objects to bring to their temporary spaces and re-imagined their permanent classrooms.

Indoor and Outdoor Spaces

At Westwood, children participate in open-ended play both inside and outdoors. In these outdoor spaces, children find materials such as a willow tunnel, mud kitchen, and tree stumps. The goal is to invite children to non- directed and imaginative play.

As a Nature Explorer certified school, Westwood fills outdoor spaces with natural materials vs. traditional playground equipment. This research-based certification is a huge draw to prospective families thinking to enroll their children at Westwood.

Kellee explains that parents also appreciate the indoor learning environments at Westwood because they “are warm and welcoming, with large windows overlooking the lake.” In addition, loose parts and open-ended play opportunities fill the classrooms.

Team Building

When interviewing potential teachers Kellee asks if they are flexible, collaborative and open to new ideas.

“Teachers at Westwood are comfortable with unknowns, asking questions and taking risks.” As a result, curriculum evolves based on child and family input.

There is little turnover in staff at Westwood, and with good reason. Roles are fluid based on the needs and interests of the teacher. “We try to create an environment that meets a teacher’s needs and their journey.”

When looking to hire teachers, Kellee looks at the values of the prospective hire. Westwood teachers are passionate about the Reggio Approach and willing to collaborate with colleagues and families.“Our goal is to recognize, respect and support our teachers.”


Kellee explains that families come to Westwood Early Learning Center for a variety of reasons including the emphasis on nature, Lutheran faith, Reggio inspiration, and the school’s rating as a high-quality program. Also, parents love that family engagement is a huge part of the Westwood community.

“There is a kind of magic that can happen when you trust, respect, and honor the ideas of children.”

As a play-based program, Westwood’s primary focus is on the development of the whole child. Kellee sees the value in play and viewing children for who they are now.

Kellee tells parents, “Children are going to get messy inside and outside.” That said, the emphasis on play is not at the expense of learning. Teachers naturally weave the standards into class in authentic ways.

Documentation Using Educa

“Westwood’s parent engagement increased significantly after introducing Educa. Educa makes learning visible and strengthens our community. It’s been a fantastic resource for us.”

Westwood’s parent engagement increased significantly after introducing Educa. Kellee especially loves that Educa allows her to communicate in real-time with parents and track parent engagement. With a strong sense of community and family collaboration, Educa is a perfect tool for her center. Parents are engaged by commenting on learning stories and writing their own learning stories to inform teaching.

Teachers write stories on Educa aligned with the Early Childhood Indicators of Progress. Later, teachers are able to combine stories, curriculum and child goals into a comprehensive portfolio.

Learn more about Westwood here

Note.  Educa is proud to be an Evangelical Lutheran Education Association partner and supporter.