“Hola,” the Asian toddler greets her Latina playmate.
“Ni hao,” the little Latina answers.
So it goes at the Chinese Community Center, where the staff offers a multitude of services to Houstonians of all ages and cultures. But the giggles, the sunshine, come from its Early Childhood Center.
Valencia Baldez, a former teacher there and now the assistant director, remembers the day a child noticed Baldez’s shoe was untied and bent down to fix it. But as hard as the pre-schooler tried, she couldn’t replicate the bows she’d learned in class.
What to do?
The girl stuck the laces inside her teacher’s shoe and said, “There. Now you won’t trip.”
The little ones, ages 18 months to 5 years old, trick-or-treat throughout the building for Halloween and dress in cultural attire to celebrate the Lunar New Year. They garden or read or walk with the CCC’s senior citizens, often hand-in-hand. Their artwork brightens most hallways, and they delight their elders with their proficiencies in English, Mandarin, Spanish and sometimes Cantonese.
As the children practice the mix of languages, so do their teachers and administrators.
All of them have lots to say about their distinguished school, which is located in the Southwest Management District.
Lauren Niles, 5, is interested in gardening, so that’s what she is encouraged to do in class. Last spring, she remembers, “We had radishes and pomegranates. And tomatoes. You throw your seeds into the dirt and tuck them in, and the sky waters them. And that’s how you grow tomatoes.”
Lauren’s twin sister, Layla, flips through a Chinese newspaper. She can’t read it yet, but she is studying the characters intently. She is learning Mandarin.
The girls’ mother, Maria Wilkins, says jokingly that her little ones think they are half-Asian, even though they’re African-American and native Houstonians.
“I’m like, OK,” Wilkins says. “Children feel accepted here. They don’t see color.”
Wilkins is so sold on the program that she drives an hour and 10 minutes to get the three of them to school. She is deeply involved in the program, too; she is a pre-kindergarten teacher.
“I went from a job that paid $28 an hour,” she says, to one that started at half that. “But I love working with the kids and their families. It’s a joyful experience to have someone learning off you.”
Jackie Tian also took a big pay cut to work in the CCC’s Early Learning Center. In China, she had a career in international business. Today she works with older toddlers, ages 2 1/2 to 3.“They’re so adorable,” she says.
Tian watches as they transition from non-verbal to verbal, from diapers and baby ways to big kid clothes and independence.
“They talk non-stop, and they want to do things on their own. They tell me, ‘I can do it, I want to do it.’ ”
Also they make friends based on shared likes and dislikes.
“They don’t see race,” Tian says. “They see character.”
At the CCC school, all learning is child-directed. If the children are fascinated by insects, for example, Tian will prepare a month of lessons on insects. If they want to learn about dinosaurs, Tian will make sure all her lesson plans feature dinosaurs.
To best help working parents, be they medical doctors or restaurant workers, the school is open from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. five days a week. For parents who can’t afford tuition, financial aid is available.
“We have a lot of resources here,” Tian says. “If your child has a delay or is a little bit special and you don’t know what to do, we will help you.”
The satisfaction she gets from her job, she thinks, is priceless.
The school has about 45 students and roughly 15 teachers, with training that ranges from Child Development Associates certificates to master’s degrees in education.
Always the staff strives to keep the child/teacher ratio low and make sure the children are more than ready for elementary school.
Some parents worry that the notion of child-based learning means their students somehow will be behind when they start “big” school, says Chi-Mei Lin, the CCC’s CEO and an early childhood expert.
She calms those fears. The school is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an honor that fewer than 5 percent of Houston’s childcare centers can claim. Also, the program is recognized by and works with the United Way of Greater Houston.
Lin is enormously proud of those associations. She’s equally proud that the early childhood program attracts immigrant and newcomer families from all over the world.
Says Lin, “We want to help them as they overcome barriers and build a safety net in Houston, a place they call home.”
Baldez, the administrator, has worked with CCC children for 15 years.
The little girl who tried to tie Baldez’s shoe came in one morning and told her, “I’m annoying.”
“Who told you that?” Baldez asked.
“My mom,” the child said.
Other little ones blurt out, “My grandfather went to heaven,” or, “My hamster died.”
Baldez says, “We build powerful relationships with these families, and it’s bittersweet to watch the children grow up and leave us.”
She droops for a millisecond, then perks up.
“If the parents have another child, they’ll come back to us.”
— by Claudia Feldman