Building A Strong Foundation
As I write this, I’m listening to a courtyard-full of preschoolers laughing and playing in the warm morning sunshine. Some of them are racing tricycles around the track we’ve painted on the sidewalk. Another group are on their hands and knees, intently following an ant as it carries its cargo across the lawn. Three little girls are drawing pictures on the outdoor chalkboard. Several kids are trying to keep up with the basketballs that keep getting away while they bounce them back and forth. All of these activities are strengthening the kids’ fine and gross motor skills. Just as importantly, these activities are fostering important life skills such as working together, solving problems, and learning how to play. And yes - sometimes children must be taught how to use their imaginations and have fun.
When we began our preschool program a decade ago, it became apparent that many of the four-year olds in our neighborhood were woefully lacking in the skills needed to be successful in Kindergarten - startling because we know that kids who start behind tend to stay behind. One student knew himself as “Bam Bam” but didn’t know his given name. His classmate didn’t have a word for corn. “Ms. Terri,” he pleaded, “I want some more of those beans. But I don’t want those brown beans. I want the yellow beans.” Ms. Terri clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “That’s called corn. But you know your colors!” Similar stories filled out staff meetings and we knew we had to be intentional about filling the gaps for these precious little ones. When our first class of 2-year olds graduated into our After School program as Kindergarteners, the success of our preschool program was unmistakable. Compared to other children who hadn’t participated in preschool programs, our graduates were far and away more prepared to succeed as Kindergartners. And today – nine years after enrolling our first preschool class, 78% of our Fortress After School 3rd graders are reading at or above grade level.
One afternoon last spring, I had the unexpected opportunity to substitute in our After School program. As I worked with one of our new Kindergarteners, we struggled to communicate. I asked her question after question. She didn't answer, but simply smiled shyly in return. What I didn't realize immediately was that Aylin didn't speak English. From across the room, 5-year old Blanca saw was what happening, swiveled around in her seat, and began translating. It was the sweetest exchange. I asked Aylin what her favorite activity is and watched her light up when Blanca asked her the question in her native language. “Play!” answered Aylin in Spanish. I then asked her to finish this sentence: "I love Fortress because….”. Blanca translated it, then giggled at Aylin's answer. “She said ‘play’ again!” Indeed, even Albert Einstein declared that “play is the highest form of research.”
The amazing part of this story is, two years ago, Blanca didn't speak a word of English, either. She came to us as a timid preschooler, and now she's a confident translator. I am reminded once again why it is so important that we provide preschool for the precious kids in our underserved neighborhood, and especially why it’s imperative that we prepare for the growing number of Spanish-speaking families moving into our historically African-American corner of town. Aylin, Blanca, and all of our “at-risk” kids are more than capable ofmaking their dreams reality. That’s why we prefer to call them “at-hope”.
-Stacy Agee, Director of Communications and Development