Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, May 31 2011
Snapshot: Merriott Terry
Merriott Terry, president and CEO of the Dallas-based nonprofit organization Educational First Steps (EFS), thinks that the first steps in a child’s education make all the difference for a promising future. And unfortunately, because of high poverty levels, many economically disadvantaged children simply don’t have opportunities to attend quality preschool education programs, leaving them a step or two behind.
Terry has dedicated her efforts to creating scholarships and early intervention to help get kids into quality educational programs. Along with that she has developed community partnerships and training, helping existing preschools and day care centers provide high-quality educational opportunities they can be proud of for children, who are indeed the future.
Womenetics: What defines a quality preschool program?
Merriott Terry: Quality preschool involves programs in which the teachers are trained and the children are engaged in meaningful, hands on, developmentally correct activities. An example of this would be a room arranged with learning centers, such as a block center with blocks of different shapes and sizes; a dramatic play center with all kinds of clothing to wear; a kitchen/home living center where a healthy snack can be prepared; a math center with inviting, colorful manipulatives; an art center with paints, crayons, Play-Doh, and clay; a science center that helps the children look at their world, perhaps through a birds' nest, feather, turtle, seashells, or pine cones; and a computer center that encourages the children to use technology, which aids their learning.
Womenetics: Why is quality childhood education so important at the preschool level?
Terry: Research has shown that the earlier the intervention, the more success the child will have in her future. We must provide for children what they cannot do for themselves, and the working poor need more than just safety and food. The future work force must have a quality introduction to learning.
Womenetics: How do you rally other professionals in the community to help with this cause?
Terry: People know that a quality education is not inexpensive. By stressing the present research and not reinventing the wheel, one can easily say, "Here is a center that is below quality standards, here is a center that meets quality standards, and here is one that exceeds quality standards." A visit to any of these centers will quickly reveal to a person what is happening with children in the presented environments. My experience has been that when fellow professionals see these facts in person, they do not need to hear many words in order to be convinced.
Womenetics: How is the EFS model different from other nonprofit models?
Terry: EFS works with its partners by agreeing to improve the environment for children. EFS does not tell the centers what do, but rather partners with them in setting goals for the centers toward accreditation, so that when EFS is no longer the catalyst, the center can stand on its own achievements. A fully accredited center not only draws additional funding, but also parents who are enthused about what is going on with their children.
Womenetics: Can you explain how the “Four Steps to Excellence” boost the quality of learning centers?
Terry: Within the partnering model, we work with existing childcare and preschools using an approach called “Four Steps to Excellence.” The first step is “Probation” that lasts for up to six months, and all centers enter the EFS program here with training and weekly mentoring. The second step is “Working Toward Excellence” during which the centers work to improve quality to the standards of national accreditation through more training and weekly mentoring from EFS with scholarships and materials provided.
Step 3, “Maintaining Accreditation Standards,” is a one-year period following accreditation where regular support from EFS continues. And Step 4 is the “Community Partner” stage. This is when centers have reached accreditation or maintain a quality equal to accreditation, and EFS support is given on an as-needed basis.
Womenetics: Can you explain how the other factors figure in to the programs, such as mentoring and accreditation?
Terry: First of all, mentoring means that each teacher and director is receiving training to help them improve their skill level and their ability to work with children. The road to accreditation is critical because it is the process that makes the difference. The accreditation itself is simply the reward for all the hard work.
Womenetics: What would these kids be doing if they didn’t have these opportunities that EFS provides?
Terry: Some would be warehoused in childcare centers, sitting in front of televisions. Others would be home alone or in environments where they are not stimulated at all.
Womenetics: What drew you to this kind of work with children?
Terry: "One childhood, one chance." This means that I have the opportunity to stimulate a child for a lifetime, not just for a day.
Womenetics: How can others around the country help promote quality preschool learning?
Terry: We must all be partners in training children; they really are our future. The future work force must be prepared so that the United States maintains its critical edge in entrepreneurship, creativity, and quality of life.
Womenetics: What do you enjoy doing outside of work to relax?
Terry: I love to read, paint, cook, ski, and take walks in the park, especially with my grandchildren.
Womenetics: What do you envision in your future?
Terry: As a woman of faith, it would be most important for me to hear the Master say, "A job well done."
Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy, and Fit Parent.