By HEATHER HOPSON
“She’s in!” That’s what the director of a nationally recognized preschool told me over the telephone last week. Those two words triggered tears of joy—joy that my daughter will receive a top-notch education, and tears of pain—pain that my bank account will take a huge hit when I cut a check for the tuition each month. Did I mention my daughter isn’t even old enough to attend the school yet? I placed her on the waiting list for the two-year-old classroom shortly after she blew out the candle on her first birthday cake. Since I am a certified reading teacher who once worked at a high needs school, I know first-hand how important it is to start building an educational foundation early on. I read to my daughter when she was in the womb. Right now, she is mastering her phonics with my aunt, a retired preschool teacher. Some people might say I force her to learn. But I would respond that she enjoys learning. She’s a sponge–absorbing every bit of information she comes across. And each day, she amazes me with her knowledge. Last night, she pointed to the ground and yelled, “Snow, snow!” I talk to her as if she is an adult. On the way to the car each morning, I tell her about the weather or the trees. A few weeks ago, she came down the hall saying, “Apple, apple.” I figured she wanted a snack, but when I looked up, she was holding the piece of fruit in her hand.The Classroom
According to a 2002 Harvard study entitled Getting Parents “Ready” for Kindergarten: The Role of Early Childhood Education,” when families are involved in their children’s early childhood education, children may experience greater success when they enter elementary school. Based on what I witnessed in the classroom, that is true. Some of my students read on a 3rd grade reading level when they were getting ready to go to high school. One class struggled with a book my 7-year-old nephew was reading for fun. I questioned authority as to why I had to teach my kids how to write an expository essay when they didn’t know how to write a proper paragraph. I wondered how they could thoroughly analyze The Willow and the Ginkgo when several students thought the word velvet in the poem referred to a color. Confused, I asked them to explain, and they told me, “You know, like red velvet cake.” I desperately sought advice from a teacher down the hall. She told me that she didn’t assign homework, because they weren’t going to do it.
Instead of feeling sorry for my kids and sorry for myself, I raised my expectations. I assigned Drake songs to analyze and brought in rappers and spoken work artists to co-teach the rest of the poetry unit. I closed the textbook, photocopied an August Wilson play and transformed my third floor classroom—which was barely air-conditioned—into the hot 1930s with props I dug up in my apartment. Changes weren’t only on the outside. They were on the inside as well. Soon, my class repeated my favorite phrases like, “Doing half your work is 50-percent, and 50-percent is failing,” and “You use profanity in middle school only when your vocabulary is limited.” One young lady told me that I was the first person to tell her she was smart. Surprised, I said I wouldn’t be the last. Another wrote me a letter, saying that I was his favorite teacher, because I didn’t accept his excuses. I made him come to class, participate and second think joining a so-called gang. Although they believed I taught them how to read, they taught me so much more. They taught me how to be a good mother, because they let me practice on parenting them. Pregnant and unmarried, they taught me that my daughter wouldn’t be less of a person because her father didn’t live in the same home.
Although my time teaching was short, it taught me that an achievement gap exists. The gap can close, starting with early childhood education and dedicated, effective teachers like the ones at my school who stayed after work longer than the janitors and engaged their students in learning day after day. So, when I met Dr. Steve Perry, my education hero, recently at the Disney Dreamers Academy, I was excited to talk to him about getting our kids the education they deserve.
Heather: Why is early childhood education so vital?
Dr. Perry: Too many of our people in our community don’t have access to it and they come to school ill-prepared. And when I say come to school ill-prepared, I don’t just mean academically, I mean behaviorally. A number of students do not know how to sit still or participate in a regular school day. So it takes them a number of years, especially boys, to get comfortable with it, if they ever get comfortable at all.
Heather: What about parents getting comfortable? A recent Harvard study reported that parents’ positive experiences with early childhood programs could help them prepare for connecting with their children’s elementary schools. What would you say to parents who don’t know how to interact with the school system?
Dr. Perry: Parents need to understand how to communicate with the school. This is where your child is—love it or hate it. Until that changes, you have to figure out a way to build the appropriate relationships with them, so they can support you.
Heather: Often society paints the picture that children are less likely to achieve academically if they don’t live with both parents. I totally disagree. My smartest students weren’t successful just because they had God-given abilities. They obtained success in the classroom in part because they received support at home. They had a caring adult in their corner—a mom, a dad, an aunt or a grandparent—advocating for their education.
Dr. Perry: Sometimes children don’t have access to their family, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be successful. So having caring adults who are consistently involved in their life is vital. It’s great if those people could be their parents, but it’s not a necessity.
Heather: You can overcome any obstacle. Your mother gave birth to you on her 16th birthday. You also talked about your father being in prison yet he still had a positive impact on your educational experience. He told you, “If success doesn’t move you, try failure.”
Dr. Perry: Right. It’s very easy for us to look around—especially those of us who don’t have a lot of positive role models in our life, to look around and bemoan the fact that they don’t exist. But that doesn’t change the fact that we can still make the most out of our environment. I can’t change where my kids live, but I can change how my kids view where they live. They can view where they live as the end of the story or as the beginning.
Heather: Thank you Dr. Perry for taking time to talk to parents. It was wonderful meeting you!
How are you getting a head start on your child’s education? What are you looking for in a preschool program?
Heather Hopson once hosted a television show in the Cayman Islands. Today, she’s back home writing a different kind of story as a new mom for her blog, Diary of a First Time Mom. Heather is also a regular contributor for Kidville’s Voices from the Ville and Black and Married with Kids, where she pens “The Single Life” column. Follow her motherhood journey on Twitter @dearmomdiary.
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