After two weeks of preschool, 3-year-old D’mai Brock was running around the house singing the ABCs.
“Before we came here, I would try to sing it with her and she would never sing anything,” her mother, Shazondra Alford said. Now, D’mai is “happily running through the house, counting things, saying numbers ... I love it.”
D’mai is one of the first class of preschoolers at the East Durham Children’s Initiative and Latino Educational Achievement Partnership’s EDCI/LEAP Academy, a bilingual pre-kindergarten program that opened Feb. 2.
Last week, D’mai and her schoolmates took plastic scissors in hand (with some help from Mayor Bill Bell and other grownups) to cut the ceremonial ribbon for EDCI/LEAP’s “official launch” event.
“If you’re having a bad day,” said Ellen Reckhow, a county commissioner and one of EDCI’s founders, “I recommend you come over here, and you’ll leave with a smile.”
Housed at the city’s East Durham Recreation Center on Harvard Avenue, the academy occupies a bright, spacious classroom with tiny tables and chairs, books and playthings and various activity centers around the walls: a grocery store, kitchen, a science section where the children have seedlings growing in peat cups and caterpillars growing into butterflies.
“They’re really into science,” said Academy manager Tonya Post. “And they love to cook. ... They’re so interested in everything.”
The Academy is open weekday mornings during the traditional school year, with space for 24 children – half 3 years old and half 4, half boys and half girls, half from English-speaking homes and half from Spanish.
“The demographics of this neighborhood really lent themselves ... to a bilingual preschool,” Reckhow said.
Writing and Play-Doh
The preschool helps meet a need perceived at Y.E. Smith Elementary School, which serves the EDCI area of Northeast Central Durham, Reckhow said.
“We started learning within about a year of starting (EDCI) that ... about 65 percent of young people coming to school had not had any pre-kindergarten instruction,” she said.
“That led to them being behind ... the beginning of what is called the ‘achievement gap.’ EDCI is all about closing that gap,” Reckhow said.
LEAP executive director Leigh Bordley, a member of the Durham Public Schools board, said everything children do is “intentional ... toward being prepared for kindergarten and academic success.”
Even an activity like playing with Play-Doh.
“The way you work with Play-Doh strengthens your fingers and prepares your fingers to be able to write,” she said.
Besides working with Play-Doh, preschool is about other sorts of “soft skills,” Reckhow said.
“They’re learning how to get along with other children, to follow instructions, to work in group settings and to manage their emotions,” she said. “They develop a sense of curiosity and they learn how to focus on a task and complete it.”
Oralia Mayorga said her daughter, Biana, 4, has learned a lot of things in a very short time. In Spanish translated by LEAP teacher mentor Dalia Gheiler, Mayorga said the preschool has helped Biana’s development and when she goes to kindergarten next year she will know what to expect.
Engaging parents is part of the program, said EDCI board Chairman Barker French. There are programs for parents and kids together, and parents are encouraged to volunteer at the preschool. Alford, who is an assistant teacher as well as an EDCI/LEAP parent, said her daughter has learned “how to socialize” at preschool.
“She actually gets to learn how to make friends, what people may like, what people may not like, she gets to learn that being the baby and screaming at home doesn’t always work when you’re around your peers,” she said.
“I’ve learned a lot as a parent,” Alford added. “I love everything it’s teaching me. I love it, D’mai loves it, I’m happy, she’s happy. ... It’s like a double good thing.”
The Initiative and the LEAP
Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, the East Durham Children's Initiative (EDCI) is a six-year-old project to encourage, guide and nurture children and their families, from birth to college or career, in long-depressed Northeast Central Durham.
Its own zone consists of 120 city blocks, including the neighborhoods targeted by Mayor Bill Bell's Poverty Reduction Initiative. Its idea is to link familes with a “pipeline” of educational and social services through partnerships with more than 20 public and private agencies and institutions in Durham, such as Durham Public Schools and Duke University Health System.
The Latino Educational Achievement Partnership began in 2008 as an English-as-Second-Language tutoring program at El Buen Pastor, a Spanish-language Episcopal church in Durham. Subsequently, volunteers began tutoring Latino children in literacy skills and developed a tutor-training program. In 2012, LEAP opened a Spanish-language preschool at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.