Growing Strong: Bettering Early Childhood Development | United Way of Metropolitan Dallas

Growing Strong: Bettering Early Childhood Development

black mom and daughter smile for camera

Southern Dallas child-care centers are making sky-high leaps toward excellence with a boost from United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’ First Five program.  

“First Five is a partnership with PepsiCo Foundation, Frito-Lay and United Way to improve quality of child care in the southern sector of our community,” said Susan Hoff, United Way Chief Impact & Strategy Officer. In order to really impact a community which disproportionately is affected by unemployment, we have to focus on providing child care, and making sure that child care is the best it can possibly be. First Five also aims to give hundreds of mothers the opportunity to work. 

In partnership with United Way, ChildCareGroup of Dallas developed First Five as part of United Way’s overall Southern Dallas Thrives initiative addressing southern Dallas community issues such as provision of healthy meals, quality child care, career opportunities and preparing students for success.  

Linda Turner, vice president of community outreach and administration at ChildCareGroup, expanded on First Five: “It focuses on the first five years of life as key in setting children up to succeed in school and life,” she said. Research shows that about 90 percent of the human brain develops in the first five years of life, according to ChildCareGroup, and the brain is most flexible and adaptable to learning during those years. ChildCareGroup, in existence since 1901, has partnered with United Way for nearly 100 years.  


Rising Stars 

Five child-care providers were chosen for United Way’s First Five program, including the Ivy League Child Development Center, Creative Minds Child Care Center, Bright Minds Learning Center and Kids Concepts (and a fifth center that closed because of the coronavirus and will not reopen) 

All are in the low-income ZIP codes of 75233, 75237 and 75236 in southern Dallas, and all are hoping to achieve, or maintain, the four-star level in the voluntary Texas Rising Star provider rating system for subsidized child care. The goal of Texas Rising Star is that children who are low-income can have high-quality child care wherever they live. “Many times, the centers have challenges, for any number of reasons, keeping constantly at the four-star,” Turner said. “This program allows mentors to keep spending time with the centers, coaching them through the process.”  

Ivy League, in Oak Cliff, set its course for the stars—and made it. Over the course of 18 months, the center, directed by Justin Williams, went from zero stars to four stars (the highest achievable level) in the Texas Rising Star program.  

Since First Five began in early 2019, ChildCareGroup mentors have worked with providers and their staffs in areas such as basic education and care, networking, family support, making community connections, discovering new resources and more. Staff members may be longtime professionals or could be people who are still in school themselves, Turner said. 

Texas doesn’t fare well when compared to other states when it comes to taking care of our children. The state ranked 43rd overall in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2020 Kids Count Profile. About 57 percent of young Texas children ages 3 and 4 do not attend school, and some 1.54 million Texas children live in poverty. 

Tackling those grim statistics, we take a dual-generation approach through First Five, with the idea that parents can thrive at home and work if they know their young children are being nurtured and prepared for school and life.  


Raven & Reign: Better Together 

Raven Tatum is among the hundreds of southern Dallas parents struggling to work and provide quality child care for their families. Tatum, a client at Ivy League, said her 2-year-old daughter, Reign, has blossomed under Ivy League’s tutelage. “She started coming last August,” said Tatum, 30, a behavioral health coordinator. “Before she started going there, her speech just wasn’t where it should be. I thought I was going to have to get her a speech therapist. 

“But she’s gotten so much better. I can understand most of her words; she’s speaking more clearly and talking instead of pointing. They have really helped my baby,” said Tatum, a single mom. 

Prior to finding Ivy League, she said, “It was hard for me to find somewhere that I felt was a safe environment, and with me working in Richardson, I wanted to know I could make that commute and still be at ease with where she was near home. I don’t have to call and see how she’s doing, because I know she’s OK. The teachers are very informative; they keep me up to date on her progress, and they’ll even send me videos of her interacting in class.

Another issue for my child was that she was always a loner with not a lot of kids around her,” Tatum added. “But now I can see she has friends. That’s a major step.” 



Williams, Ivy League’s director, said the First Five program put stars in his eyes—he wanted that four-star rating—and also opened them to wider possibilities. “They came in and we walked every single room, even the playground, and some things that hadn’t been in the forefront of my vision came through,” he said. “I saw how I could make it even better.” 

For example, he said, “I’m a really visual person, and I had stuff everywhere, beautiful posters, prints, all over the place. They (the First Five mentors) helped me see that everything should be intentional, and at eye level. That what I had going on could be confusing to a toddler.” 

The process took him through everything from classroom environments to community and parent engagement, Williams said, helping him to “completely revamp my center into a true learning environment, where the learning is part of every single thing we do. In the kitchen, we might be just making lunch, but we can talk about utensils. It’s learning and doing, not just rote learning.” 

Sarah Moreno, ChildCareGroup’s Texas Rising Star lead mentor, said that some of the areas they worked on with each center included upgrading paperwork policies, ensuring teachers are trained/achieving training hours needed for licensing requirements (state licensing requires 24 CEUs; Texas Rising Star asks for 30 CEUs at its centers), making sure learning plans are developmentally appropriate and more. 

“The last piece is parent engagement—how are you involving your parents, are you hosting events to talk about early childhood development, muffins with mom or donuts with dad, maybe a Black History Month program, graduation, things like that,” Moreno said. 

First Five and ChildCareGroup also help directors deal with issues such as poverty, mental health and hunger, said Dayna Graham, community engagement specialist—“anything families need to help them do parenting in day-to-day life,” she said. “We’re also dealing with COVID now, of course, and checking in on how people are doing, do they need any support there, whatever we can help with.” 


Get involved with Southern Dallas Thrives, First Five and other United Way programs by giving, advocating or volunteering. Together, we can improve education, health and income—the building blocks of opportunity—for all North Texans.

This article was published on: Jul 27, 2020