The little school that could
Written by Addie Ladner | Photograph by Tyler Cunningham
One summer day, a two-year boy was sitting outside his home in Southeast Raleigh, sharing ice cream with his grandmother. A woman approached them asking what kind of schooling they had planned for him, and if they wanted a place to go next year, for free. It sounded too good to be true—but it wasn’t.
Today, this boy gets picked up every morning and is brought to a safe, fun and stimulating classroom at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church. On any given day, he may have egg casserole for breakfast and spaghetti and meatballs for lunch. He’s learning numbers and letters; he’s romped around a pumpkin patch. When he turns four, he’ll dine at local restaurants, ordering off the menu himself.
All of these experiences and his parents, who both work overtime, won’t have to pay a dime.
Children without access to pre-kindergarten programs often struggle once they get to elementary school, and that gap can be harder to close as kids get older. Enter Wee Care, a free preschool for low-income children in Wake County. Founded by Laurie Harrell and Ellen Safrit in 2006, the nonprofit works to help children enter kindergarten prepared and ready, both academically and socially. They, along with countless community volunteers, recruit kids by going directly to the in-need neighborhoods, working with local schools and by word-of-mouth.
Wee Care’s origins can be traced back to Harrell’s work as a teacher at Hunter Elementary. Harrell was a member of the student support team, designed to help kids who are struggling academically or behaviorally. She noticed a troubling pattern: the kids having issues each year were usually from the same neighborhoods in Southeast Raleigh. By the time they got to kindergarten, intervention was often too late. “There just wasn’t a lot we could do by that point,” she says. “These families have to think about things that aren’t the things we have to think about. They’re just trying to make ends meet.” That got her thinking: What if we could somehow set these kids up for success before they come to kindergarten?
Now, every three years, Wee Care forms a class of about ten two-year-olds from economically disadvantaged families. They’ll nurture, guide and shape that class of kids for three years until it’s time for kindergarten, for free. And while Wee Care covers the basic preschool agendas—letters, numbers, shapes, colors—their experiences go beyond that: Wee Care takes them shopping for Christmas gifts for their families in the winter and strawberry picking in the spring; they’ll explore Raleigh and beyond through field trips to the farmers market, zoo and beach. These activities are a luxury for many of the kids, and they can shape a young person’s academic and social intelligence. “I try to think of things they maybe can’t do at home,” Harrell says. It’s a small preschool with a big impact, where little ones thrive. And Harrell says they hope to double the number of kids they can help within a year.
Southeast Raleigh resident Felicia Sanders has a brood of children and grandchildren that she’s often taking care of, three of whom have attended Wee Care. When we spoke, Sanders was giddy and proud when she read that her granddaughter in kindergarten got all 3s (the numeric version of As) on her progress report. She credits this largely to Wee Care. “They don’t just teach ABC’s and how to read, they show them. They do hands-on experiences—sharing, caring, politeness. The kids don’t forget what they learn,” Sanders says. That kindergarten readiness is what Harrell is so passionate about. “That’s my favorite thing, watching them grow so healthy and leave us with confidence,” she says.