Steve Perry Collage


The Call


“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.


The Challenge 


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 era 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.


The Interview


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 exists. 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!


Hey DFTM Family–How are you getting a head start on your child’s education? What are you looking for in a preschool program?


About The Author

Vlog Mom/DFTM Creator

Not long ago, Heather Hopson hosted a television show in the Cayman Islands. Today, she's back home writing a different kind of story as a new mom. In her 15 years working as a professional journalist, this by far is her best assignment! Growing up, she dreamed of becoming Oprah Winfrey. She was the features editor for her school’s newspaper and a teen talk show host for her city’s most popular radio station. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Michigan State University. After graduation, she worked as a television producer and reporter at CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates throughout the U.S. Instead of heading to Chicago to join Ms. Winfrey on her set, she bought a plane ticket to the Cayman Islands instead. She arrived five days before a category five hurricane! She lived in paradise for seven years, hosted an award-winning television show and traveled the globe with a government delegation. She also served on the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters and spearheaded a Send a Kid to Camp campaign. Then, she relocated to Washington, D.C. to obtain a teaching certification and instruct 8th grade reading at a high needs middle school. She later returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh, PA to raise her daughter Caitlynn, now 4-years-old. During her 10-month-stint as a stay-at-home mom, Caitlynn inspired her to create this blog, and Diary of a First Time Mom was born on Mother’s Day 2012. Two years later, she expanded the family to include 20+ writers. Currently, Heather serves as the communications director at Allies for Children. In addition, she is the owner of Motor Mouth Multimedia, which ranked #49 in Startup Nation’s Home-Based 100 Competition sponsored by Discover Card and Sam’s Club. Recently, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments selected Heather to receive an Emerging Black Artist award to develop Diary of a First Time Mom.

8 Responses

  1. Hanifah Munadi

    As an Educator, I always try to look at the big picture, and it is a saving grace for me that I am able to think out of the box. I have taken the time through my teaching yrs to study the education system in other parts of the world. It was important for me to understand the reason(s) why the education system work so well in other countries and we struggle with so many different issues within our school system. As I observed the students that were having difficulty, for example, sitting still for any length of time or the student that was not able to focus for example, my mind would go back to other countries and the things that seemed to be effective within their classroom settings. I contacted the janitorial dept at my school and asked them to remove all of my students desks out of my classroom. I bought two large plush area rugs, a huge tent, throw pillows, and slate boards. My classromm was now called “The Village”. I integrated Chromotherapy (color therapy) and used yellow and black as my classroom colors. The yellow represented memory; if u want someone to memorize something, put it on yellow paper (ex, the yellow pages of the phone books). The black color represents “power” and gives a feeling of strength and self-confidence. I also integrated Music Therapy with soft jazz, nature sounds, relaxation and meditation music playing very softly in the background. As a result of these physical changes within the environment of my classroom, the student that was unable to sit very long befor at the desk could feel free to stretch out on the carpet, the student that had difficulty focusing could not get lost in my classroom, because there was enough positive messaging and stimulation that could keep him/her from totally losing focus. I also allow my students to eat fruit and drink water inside of the class room while teaching/learning is taking place. My reason for allowing this to occur is because I want my stuednts to get into the happy of eating more alkaline foods which helps them to think clearly. My classroom is the talk of the county. The students of Education from the University here come in to my classroom to observe. Teachers are sent to my classroom by the Principal to observe my classroom because I have no classroom management issues. I feel that if we are able to observe our students in a holistic manner and not judge or stereotype them, then we are able to more effectively meet their needs in a healthy, productive and effective manner.

    • newmom0608

      Love that you think outside the box! I removed my desks in the classroom and had the janitors bring in tables. It was much easier to manage six tables versus 30 individual desks. I never knew that information about colors. Really interesting. My students complained about my music selections, but it created a sense of peace in the room. I played tranquil CDs that you would hear at a day spa. I would love if you were my daughter’s teacher!

  2. Myesha

    How did you do your research on good preschools, I will be moving to Houston soon and my baby will be one in June so based on your experience with waiting list I need to get started.

    • newmom0608

      In Pennsylvania, there’s a star system. So I only visited four-star accredited facilities. And I asked around, because sometimes just because a school has a big price tag doesn’t mean it lives up to what you pay! I enrolled my daughter in a toddler program, which I did like, but it was definitely lacking in some areas. It was really pricey! My best friend who sent her son there and then to a less expensive three or two star facility, liked their staff better!

  3. Christine

    Great topic and post! Since I have 3 children age 5 and under, I definitely agree with early childhood development. While I agree, I’ve also never put all of my faith on my childrens’ learning in a program, teacher or school (obviously, not saying that you are at all). We got a headstart in their learning by putting them in a pre-K program right before they turned 3. I loved the program primarily because it was Christian based, but also because they had a great curriculum that was outlined from start to end of year (oh yes, that tuition definitely hurts to look at LOL). We continue their education at home with a mix of different learning activities (computer/tablet apps, drawing, writing, Baby Can Read flashcards/DVDs, reading, etc.). All that to say that even for those who can’t afford to put their child in the best pre-school program, there are definitely other ways to get them an early start on a great education. 🙂

  4. RonnieBMWK

    Great interview Heather. I think that everyone should take the attitude that they can do the best with what they have. Instead of fretting over not being able to afford expensive daycares or live in the best neighborhoods, you can take charge and make a difference. We have put all of our kids in day cares…but I think the thing that has really made the difference is the work that we do with them at home. And the fact that we make learning a priority at home and that the kids see that we are invested.

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