Infants in school? Fort Worth could follow Crowley ISD’s lead if November bond passes

·10 min read

Students at Crowley ISD can start attending school as young as six weeks old — and if Fort Worth ISD’s bond passes, early childhood centers embedded in elementary schools could be headed to Fort Worth as well.

“We see this as being an opportunity to make sure that we’re providing students high quality instruction and high quality child care from the very beginning,” Olyainka Moore-Ojo, FWISD early learning director, said.

The program will allow the district to play a part in some of the most pivotal years of children’s brain development, track data, and intervene early to identify learning needs, providing equity for students in later years, officials say.

Research shows that students who attend high quality early childhood education programs are less likely to be placed in special education classes, less likely to be held back a grade throughout their academic career and more likely to graduate from high school.

Bond proposal A sets aside $13,798,232 for the project, which would establish four centers across the city in areas identified as lacking in high quality early childhood education.

The district is asking voters for more than $1.5 billion across four proposals, with the major bond asks prioritizing funding to replace aging buildings and auditoriums, and other proposals funding repairs to athletic facilities.

“We know where concentrations of high quality early childhood centers are and we know parts of town where we need additional early childhood support,” said Jerry Moore, the chief of schools for Fort Worth ISD. “We are evaluating our elementary campuses to see where (there is) space available ... that we could reinvent, redesign to meet this early childhood space need.”

Large swaths of the Fort Worth school district are in Child Care Deserts, or areas with little to no access to high quality, affordable child care.

With staffing shortages and COVID related closures, that problem has become more dire.

According to a 2020 analysis of child care provider data and census data by the advocacy organization Children At Risk, there are fewer than 5 seats in subsidized child care centers in Southwest Fort Worth for every 100 children of working parents.

Across Texas, the advocacy organization’s analysis found that there are an estimated 123,000 more low-income children with working parents than available subsidized child care seats in child care centers and registered homes.

Using existing school property to house early learning centers is one solution to that problem, advocates say.

The details on where the four learning centers could be located if the bond passes, who would be eligible to attend and whether the district would partner with outside organizations for the centers are not yet decided -- with district officials saying they are focused on the bond passing first.

Moore, and other officials from Fort Worth visited the Crowley ISD program, which is operated by Child Care Associates, one of the largest child development organizations in North Texas.

An Early Head Start

Shawneequa Blunt was brought into the district to run an early child care program as a solution for teachers working in the district, as a perk to retain high quality teachers who were also parents. But after seeing the success of the program, administrators tagged Blunt to work on a committee to expand early learning offerings at the district.

During tours of the employee child care facilities, Blunt said administrators were intrigued by the engagement of infants, toddlers and 3-year-olds engaged in learning classroom environment following a curriculum.

With the help of then-Executive Director of Elementary Leadership Helena Mosely, the district began to expand early learning options for students across the district, first to full-day pre-K for 4-year-olds, then pre-K for 3-year-olds.

The district went a step further in 2019 by partnering with Child Care Associates to begin providing the federally funded Early Head Start program, which includes early learning and support for infants and toddlers from low-income families.

Mosely has since left the district to lead Head Start for all of Tarrant County with Child Care Associates.

Both district programs were popular with parents highlighting the need for quality child care and early learning in the community. Pre-K enrollment doubled after the initial expansion, and the Early Head Start program has a wait-list for parents who qualify.

Crowley ISD also looks to provide professional development for early educators, many of whom are leaving the industry due to lack of support and low wages.

“Three of my workers here this year have been interns,” said Bird, the Crowley campus director. “The idea is they come in as an intern, CCA is providing them the opportunity to get their (Child Development Associate Credential) while they’re at work, and once they acquire that CDA they are hired on full time with paid benefits.”

Life Changing Care

Gilda Abakah was pregnant with her second child when she went to one of her friends looking for help with child care.

“I desperately needed help,” she said. “I had been going around for some time and the cost was quite expensive.”

With one young child in need of care, and another on the way - Abakah was unable to work, and running out of options. Her friend referred her to the Early Head Start program at Crowley, which she did not believe was real.

“I could not believe it,” she said. “I was quite amazed, because it sounded impossible.”

But Child Care Associates and Crowley ISD administrators processed her application and enrolled her first child, Mirabel, who went on to attend preschool at the district.

The move was life changing, Abakah said. She enrolled her son Ivan at 6-months-old just three months ago, and has been happy with the program for both of her children.

Tressa Bird, the campus director of the program at Hargrave Elementary School, said that beyond child care, support for mothers in the program starts when they are still expecting.

“This is a full process. Even when moms are pregnant there are things they should be doing to make sure they are healthy, to make sure they are going to appointments and things to make sure that their pregnancy goes smoothly,” she said. “We are connecting those families with resources.”

When Tiara Malone, another Crowley resident, first sought child care, she didn’t want to leave her baby alone.

“She was premature, so she was having some swallow dysfunction issues where she would choke on her milk,” Malone said. “So I was really nervous about putting her in daycare because of that.”

When she turned to Early Head Start, she met with the director of the program, teachers and the nurse to formulate a health plan. Bird also helped to assure Malone that her baby would be safe.

“She is two now, so it has been a while, and she is much better now,” Malone said.

Blunt and Bird both said forming relationships with families early on is an added benefit to the program that could change the way families interact with the school district for the next 12 years, increasing their chances of graduation and success.

When Moore, the Fort Worth ISD official, visited the campus, he said that was another benefit he wanted at the Fort Worth school district.

“She was talking to us about how she is encouraged to have her families early on,” Moore said. “She has seen the benefit of transitioning from students who are in the early learning space as they want to come into the school.”

High Quality Early Learning in Fort Worth

Marcey Sorensen, the chief academic officer for Fort Worth ISD, said the possibility of an early learning program in the district reimagines the role schools play in the earliest years.

“I look at it as the whole birth-five continuum,” Sorensen said. “Ensuring that there is coherence and continuity across the city of Fort Worth, in that birth to five continuum, as we also seek to really dig in on kindergarten readiness so that our kids are most prepared for success in elementary school.”

Malone, the Crowley resident who has two other children, said that she has been surprised by how much her daughter, who started the program as an infant, has learned at such a young age at the Crowley ISD early learning center.

“I feel like this program is better than a regular daycare,” she said. “They are more school-based. For her to be two, she already knows all of her colors, her ABCs, and she is doing very well.”

Macari Ellington also has a child that attends the Head Start program, and looks forward to the transition into full-time schooling.

“It will be the same buildings,” she said. “She already loves school, and the connection to the campus is a glass door, so she sees the big kids -- and I think that familiarity is a big thing.”

The child care school day matches with the normal school day, and is filled with age-appropriate instruction.

Curriculum tools used at the Crowley ISD campus are the same ones already being used in Fort Worth ISD, like ReadyRosie, an early education tool that connects families to the classwork and assessment-based progress of their children allow parents to be active participants in their children’s education.

During active time, toddlers are pushed around the school in a buggy, and can see their older siblings before going to a play area that is just for them.

Future of the program

While no official partnerships have been entered into, the district said a partnership with Child Care Associates would be an option to help facilitate the programs if the bond passes, adding that programs for all families are being considered.

“There may be a couple of different types of early learning spaces,” Moore said. “It may not all be income based. As we roll out in the future I think that we are entertaining all sorts of ideas to support our community as well as our faculty and staff here in Fort Worth ISD that have a need for early childhood learning spaces.”

In Crowley ISD, Blunt said she hopes to see early learning centers at every elementary school in the district in the coming years, expanding to work with parents in every neighborhood.

Abakah, one of the parents with kids in both the district and the Early Head Start program, said that would be helpful since her daughter goes to a school that currently doesn’t offer the program.

The existence of an early learning program in Fort Worth like the one at Crowley ISD is contingent on the passage of the bond, Fort Worth ISD officials say. But regardless of the outcome, the district plans to increase their participation in the early learning space.

“I think if the possibility with the bond were not to materialize, I think we would continue to look at our plans for pre-K three, on how we could continue to expand that and then potentially look at grant opportunities, that would still give us a chance to look at these early childhood centers,” Moore said, adding that they would be on a smaller scale.

“We really are looking at redefining early learning here in Fort Worth ISD and aligning with the city and other early learning experts in Fort Worth.”

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