Alicia Blanca’s mother learned to speak English in the kitchens of Denton Christian Preschool, and to this day, Blanca said her parents still talk about how much the school did for their family.
When she was 2 years old in 1978, Blanca and her parents immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. She was ready to start kindergarten by the time her parents found out about the nonprofit preschool, so she missed out on the opportunity to attend. But her three younger siblings were able to attend the school.
Now, decades later, she serves as director of the preschool and a legacy of her family’s history.
She found herself back at the preschool 14 years ago, volunteering in the kitchens washing dishes, cooking and feeding hungry children, just as her mother had done before her. She then became a school aide and, several years ago, the school's director. Her family has a deep appreciation for the nonprofit preschool.
“It’s not about a paycheck,” Blanca said. “When you have 50 students every year that come in and improve drastically throughout the school year, that’s what keeps us coming back.”
Denton Christian Preschool was founded in 1970 by a small group of Denton residents of differing religions to serve the community. Though the name bears the word Christian and the program is housed on the First Presbyterian Church campus, students do not receive religion courses.
The school, a United Way-partnered agency, serves at-risk children coming from low- to mid-range-income families in the Denton area. Often, students who attend the school might have trouble at home such as neglect, abuse or poverty.
Blanca recounted a time when one preschooler was sneaking food into her backpack everyday. After looking into the issue, Blanca found out the preschooler was trying to feed her and her little brother on the weekends. At home, Blanca learned, the preschooler was being malnourished, and she was just trying to help her sibling.
Though not all students live in such trying circumstances, it's these types of students the preschool takes in. Blanca said she wants them to have as much opportunity at a successful future as possible, which starts with getting them ready for kindergarten.
To better serve the school's 50 students outside of just education, preschoolers receive breakfast, lunch and a snack each day, made from scratch in the school’s kitchens by devout volunteers, and some students are shuttled to school via bus pickup at their doorstep. Nearly all the school's services and amenities have been donated or volunteered to the school, and tuition and fees to attend are adjusted on a sliding scale based on families’ incomes and needs. Weekly fees range from $20 to $50.
Along with being fed during their 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, preschoolers have access to free dental hygiene screenings via a partnership with the Texas Woman’s University Dental Hygiene Clinic.
A well-rounded environment for the preschoolers is a key part of the school's educational model. Preschoolers go on field trips to places like the Fort Worth Zoo and local farms, in conjunction with their lesson plans, and all trips are included in tuition fees.
“We’re always in need of volunteers and we’re always in need of monetary contributions,” Blanca said.
As a testament to the importance of early-childhood development, school board member and classroom volunteer Gloria Thomas contributed a piece to the Record-Chronicle in 2015 detailing her views on the subject.
“If a child goes to kindergarten feeling self-confident about learning; having a vocabulary to talk about everyday objects and experiences; and self-control to enjoy the classroom environment; probable success in school is greatly enhanced,” Thomas wrote.
“Early childhood education is not just an education issue; it is also an economic issue," she wrote. "Long-term studies have shown that children in quality early education programs require less remedial work in elementary school. Quality early education has a direct impact on savings in the judicial system. We plan prison beds based on third-grade reading scores. Doesn’t it make sense to spend our money early rather than late?”
At Denton Christian Preschool, under the supervision of Blanca's staff of five full-time and three part-time employees, and many “die-hard volunteers,” the students come first.
“Our mission, our goal is to teach the child,” said Janie Porras, the school's bilingual teacher. “We want them to know and love going to school.”
The school is planning to expand into a third classroom soon.
She said when people ask her why she would choose to work at a school with little financial strength and limited resources, she can give them 50 first and last names as her reasons to stay.
“When you see the life that they live and how you can be that light at the end of the tunnel for them, that’s kind of our purpose, the reason why we wake up everyday and come in,” she said.
KYLE MARTIN can be reached at 940-566-6897 and via Twitter at @Kyle_Martin35.
FEATURED PHOTO: Alicia Blanca is the program director of Denton Christian School. (Jake King/DRC)