She winced when she opened the email.
For four months, Banu Valladares worked to keep the 144 preschool-aged kids and families her school serves connected. She partnered with Manolo’s Bakery to feed the ones who needed breakfast or lunch. She collaborated with a most generous anonymous donor to buy weekly groceries and meals for 28 lowest-income families all summer long. She developed a reading-at-home program for the kids, all in Spanish, their primary language.
For four months during the pandemic, Valladares held the line for the three- and four-year-olds at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool.
But now it was after 10 p.m. last Sunday night, August 2, and she was about to break down. On her phone was news that Meck Pre-K, the organization that funds the preschool program for four-year-olds, had ruled that its schools would be open for full in-person instruction, starting September 1. There would be no remote learning option.
Valladares, who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela when she was a teenager, leapt to the worst-case scenario.
Once again, she thought, they forgot about the Latinx kids.
The preschools’ plan is the exact opposite of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ plan to go all-virtual for kids from kindergarten on up.
The dueling decisions put Valladares and her kids in an awkward and anxious spot. Unlike other Meck Pre-K programs, which operate mostly out of daycare centers, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool rents its space from Hickory Grove Elementary, a CMS school.
So the email in front of Valladares meant this: The organization that funds her preschool for four-year-olds, Meck Pre-K, was ordering her to reopen in full. But the organization that runs the building, CMS, remains shut down.
In other words, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool must reopen in a facility that cannot be open.
The school has a dedicated budget for the 72 three-year-olds it teaches. But the money for the 72 four-year-olds comes from Meck Pre-K. If it didn’t reopen, Valladares worried, the school would lose half its budget.
“What will I do?” she asked me on Saturday night, after six days of posing that question to anyone who’d listen. “We have 72 children who will have no access to any education.”
If you have no attachment to the school, you may think it’s an unfortunate anomaly. But Charlotte Bilingual Preschool is a 20-year-old nonprofit that’s licensed by the state as a five-star child care facility, and it’s viewed as a model for kickstarting upward mobility for Latinx children.
When Valladares sees her students — “so adorable, so smart, so remarkable,” she says — she sees the future of the county. She knows that a quarter of all English-learning children drop out before graduating, and she knows that getting to them early is the best way to prevent that. Each year of their childhood, she believes, is precious.
Her story over the past eight days will be familiar to many Latinx leaders in Charlotte. She’s one of the most respected people in the city, but she spent the week believing she and her school were alone.
In this strange season with coronavirus, the school’s conundrum is a distillation of the past month of reopening starts and stops for publicly funded schools: What works for some certainly doesn’t work for others. And it’s also symbolic of the worst fears of people who work with marginalized kids: Of course, Valladares thought, the last group to know its future, the one seemingly out of options, was a group of six dozen Latinx children.
“You imagine you have no friends in the journey,” she says.
Marginalized children are the reason Meck Pre-K exists.
In 2014, a study from Harvard and Cal-Berkeley ranked Charlotte last among major U.S. cities for upward mobility. After that, the community rallied around an Opportunity Task Force that spent 18 months studying why it’s so difficult for a poor child to move out of poverty. The task force released its report in spring 2017, and entire third chapter was devoted to access to early-childhood education.
The study cited other studies, which showed that children who attended high-quality preschool programs are less likely to be arrested and typically grow up to earn about $2,000 more per month than those who are not enrolled.
Few investments, the report said, yield greater returns for a community than preschool.
CMS already had two programs serving pre-kindergarten to kids. Bright Beginnings and NC Pre-K are state-funded programs that served about 4,600 kids in Mecklenburg County. But nearly 2,000 more were on waiting lists, and at least a few thousand more were in other daycare.
Mecklenburg County’s commissioners — who rarely can move quickly on anything — jumped on this. In the summer of 2018, at the recommendation of county manager Dena Diorio, commissioners voted to increase the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to expand pre-k. The goal now is to reach 80 percent of the preschool-aged kids in the county by 2024.
They started with the children of highest need — those at or just above the poverty level, kids just like those Charlotte Bilingual School serves. And then it expanded. The community contributes, too. Foundation For the Carolinas and Bank of America and several other organizations have invested in Meck Pre-K, hoping to widen the net.
In January, Meck Pre-K announced a milestone: The total enrollment in pre-k was 5,960, while the total kindergarten number (which the county used as a basis for the total number of eligible for the class below them) was 11,742. That meant more than half of the county’s four-year-olds were enrolled in free public pre-k.
At a time when most things result in either-or positions — right and wrong, open or not — Charlotte Bilingual Preschool’s families are a fine example of how complicated reopening opinions are.
When Valladares surveyed them this summer, 42 percent said they supported a full reopening, and 42 percent said they wanted to stay home for all-virtual classes. The other 16 percent were undecided.
Each classroom has at least two kids whose families have been affected by Covid-19. Dozens have parents who’ve lost jobs. Many don’t have health insurance. This weekend brought the jarring report from the Centers for Disease Control, which says that Hispanic children were eight times more likely to be hospitalized due to Covid-19 than white children.
The decision to open the preschools ultimately rests with Diorio, the county manager who oversees Meck Pre-K. Diorio has been a champion of early-childhood education and made it one of the pillars of her time as manager.
A spokesperson for Meck Pre-K said Monday that the organization used guidance from the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education, and said, “We know that our children learn best when they have the opportunity to be together with their classmates and teachers.”
A press release last week said that “barring any changes in the public health situation, the program will not provide virtual or hybrid learning options so teachers can focus on delivering the best instruction and support in-person to the children who need it most.”
Valladares says there’s no question that in-person instruction is better. But she’s not convinced that in a pandemic it’s best for those “who need it most.” From her perspective, the kids who need it most are also the kids who are far more likely to wind up hospitalized, or pass the virus on to an aging family member.
But at this point, for the four-year-olds, she just wants them to have any school at all.
Valladares and I talked for about 90 minutes Saturday night, and she ran through all of the scenarios in her head.
She’d try fundraising if she had to, she said. But based on per-pupil spending for 72 students, if Meck Pre-K pulls funding for Charlotte Bilingual Preschool this year, she’d need to raise more than $500,000 to cover it. Charlotte Bilingual Preschool received $25,000 from the community’s Covid Relief Fund in June. So she needed about 20 times that. No problem, she joked.
Point was, she’d do whatever she has to do to teach those 72 kids.
On Sunday, Valladares emailed elected officials and Diorio again, asking for an answer.
I emailed Diorio on Monday morning, along with Meck Pre-K executive director Trinisha Dean. The spokesperson for Meck Pre-K said she couldn’t make it work with Dean’s schedule. Diorio didn’t respond.
But she did call Valladares.
They talked around noon on Monday. The manager told the school leader that they’d work with CMS to find a solution. Perhaps they could open the school partially for some of the Charlotte Bilingual kids, and find resources for virtual learning for the others.
The answers were, at least for the evening, comforting to Valladares.
She called me afterward. She said she believed she’d have a solution by September 1.
“Even though the system tells me that all of the white people are against me, you find a tremendous amount of allies,” she said. “Those triggers, you learn from childhood. You just kind of respond: Nobody loves us. We’re going to be all alone.”
The coronavirus has tested us in countless ways. One is a pretty unfair quiz in how to handle not knowing answers.
We’ve evolved, rather quickly in the past 20 years, to expect information with a few swipes of the thumb. Now comes a virus that could find you the next time you open a door.
Imagine, then, being Latinx in Charlotte during the pandemic. After years of immigration raids where family members were arrested at home and at work and deported within hours. Even for those who have little to worry about, there’s worry. It’s built in.
For the first time on Monday afternoon, Valladares believed it would work out for Charlotte Bilingual Preschool. Even if if that’s true, her efforts these past eight days speak to something in our community, something we all might want to recognize:
She is one of the most accomplished people in North Carolina. She’s served on the N.C. Humanities Council, the N.C. Arts Council, and, in 2019, she was named one of Charlotte’s 50 Opportunity Champions. She’s the executive director of the top-rated Spanish-speaking preschool in North Carolina. So how is it that she still had to spend eight days begging for answers?
“When we’re trying to fix a system,” she says, “maybe start with the margin as your universal guide, and then everybody else will be OK because they’ll fit in there.”
Toward the end of our conversation Saturday night, I asked Valladares if there was anything else she’d want me to know. She told me she still had reservations about speaking out.
Her words were consistent with what several other nonprofit leaders who work in these spaces have told me — especially those who work with Latinx population. No matter how often she has interactions that tell her otherwise, still she worries that challenging established leaders here will bring retribution.
“I came here young. I was 16. What you learn living here is that there’s a place for you and that there are people with power who run things, and you should be afraid,” she said. “There’s a quiet threat that you’re not going to be able to do this anymore. There is a part of me that fears, Am I going to lose my seat at the table?”
But when she looks at the pictures of those children, she realizes she has to answer to them first.
“So adorable, so smart, so remarkable,” she says. And then she reminds the both of us: “They’re going to be the ones making decisions for us one day.”