Story and photos by Jennie Trejo.
Enter Regen Horchow and Vickie Allen– two women at the forefront of the push to expand access to affordable, high-quality early childhood learning environments in North Texas.
Vickie is the president and CEO of Educational First Steps (EFS). This nonprofit organization is a consulting partner for existing early childhood centers and transforms them into nationally accredited programs.
“Our founder’s vision was to partner with centers that were located in communities that have been historically underinvested and under-resourced,” says Vickie about the founding of EFS.
Vickie emphasizes the term “underinvested” because poverty often plays a significant role in accessing resources.
“At this stage in life, the last thing kids should have to worry about is a great education and a great start,” says Vickie. “We want kids to show up their happy selves and to dream big– to feel like their economic circumstances don’t play a role in their possibilities for the future.”
Regen, the chairman of the board for Early Matters Dallas, shares that what they have found is that there are childcare deserts all over the city.
“There are huge swaths of the city that lack childcare for kids birth to age five,” Regen says. “They’re not concentrated in any particular region.”
For the last 33 years, EFS has supported a network of 150 independent childcare centers and home-based providers all over the metroplex. Their work reaches more than 5,000 students and 1,000 educators each year.
The support provided for centers in the EFS ecosystem include everything from applying for official nonprofit status to pursuing national accreditation and ensuring that reimbursements are submitted. They also offer the center director a portfolio of training and professional development opportunities that support her and the rest of the staff.
“We are supporters, both of the programming– what happens in the classroom– but we also support the business,” Regen says. “We want to ensure that the business is full and viable.”
Vickie echoes this sentiment by saying that all center directors are independent entrepreneurs who have intentionally decided to create a business around an industry that often does not get the respect it deserves.
“It’s not the highest-paid industry out there,” Vickie says, “and often, it’s led by women of color. Yet, it’s such a vital business. Without them, children in those local vicinities would be unable to access early childhood education.”
Vickie shares that it’s essential for the centers to feel like they have a champion for a lifetime, so they never really “graduate” from the EFS program. Instead, the type of support the center receives evolves to fit their needs.
“We have built a lasting relationship with many center directors,” Vickie says. “We see them as more than directors; they are also our neighbors in some cases. They are friends and collaborators.”
Creative Steps Academy is an early learning center that began working with EFS in 2012. Karen Nichols, the director and owner, opened her doors to the Bachman Lake community for the first time in 1991.
Karen says that she never planned for a career in early childhood education. She started the academy because the center her daughter was attending was about to close, and she had been looking for a business opportunity.
“I realized that there would be other families needing care for their children, just like I was with mine,” Karen says. “That was groundbreaking for me. Now, 31 years later, we’re still here.”
While childcare was not in the plans, Karen believes it was always in the plan for her.
“It’s been such a wonderful journey,” says Karen. “I’ve blossomed with so many of the families. It’s so important to me that they feel like this is truly like a home away from home.”
Many of the students who attended Creative Steps Academy have gone on to attend college and continue volunteering their free time at the center– a testament to the space’s positive impact on the community.
“It’s so important to educate people about what we do,” Karen says. She believes that a large part of the community thinks that all childcare centers do is look after children, but she says that is not true.
“When your child is here, we develop them cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. We are preparing family conferences and looking out for their nutritional needs,” Karen says. “There is value in bringing a child into the center instead of watching them at home.”
When Karen first connected with EFS, it had always been her goal for Creative Steps Academy to become a nationally accredited facility. She did not know how they would reach that goal because it can be a long, expensive venture.
“I will never forget the day Educational First Steps literally knocked on the door. They introduced themselves and said, ‘We are developing child care centers,’” Karen shares. “They found me, and I couldn’t believe it.”
Since that fateful day, EFS has supported Creative Steps Academy by helping them achieve that accreditation and developing a plan for their staff. EFS has educational specialists that assess a center’s strengths and weaknesses, and identify areas to improve.
“Vickie has been awesome,” Karen shares about her experience working with EFS over the years. “She understands the community, and she’s always either doing it herself, or putting people in place who know how to get it done.”
Because of their success, EFS has designated Creative Steps Academy as one of its Legacy Centers.
“We’re at a point now where we need Educational First Steps in a different capacity,” Karen shares. “I’m now asking them, ‘How can I give back to an agency that has given so much to me?”
Each year, EFS hosts a benefit fundraiser to support its mission of working alongside childcare centers to improve the care landscape across the city. This year, Regen received the inaugural Early Childhood Champion Award with a standing ovation.
“We actually created this award with Regen in mind,” says Vickie. “We wanted her to be the first because she has one of the most significant footprints in this industry, and she is relentless in her pursuit but also couples that with love and compassion for the children.”
Regen began her career as a third-grade teacher at a private school. After realizing that she wanted her impact to reach further, she joined a public-private partnership behind the Dallas Zoo. It was a hybrid childcare facility, and that’s where Regan says she got her real experience with education.
“I started my career working with third graders who were all reading,” says Regen. “And over time, I kept peeling back the onion and thinking, ‘Why are the rest of the kids in the city not reading by third grade? What do they need?’”
After starting a family, Regen began serving on boards and volunteering with organizations that rallied around children, specifically early childhood education. Regen’s experience is unique because she has worn all the hats– she’s been the teacher, the executive director, the board member, and the board chair. She can speak the same language as both the funders and the providers as well.
“I often find myself brokering,” Regen says. “Incredible people are doing incredible work.”
Regen is excited about young professionals in the field who are much more data-driven and deliberate about solving problems than they have been. Still, she says there is work to be done.
“We have rallied around Pre-K. The last horizon that hasn’t been tackled is the childcare world, particularly from birth to age three. What happens to our infants and toddlers is a real black hole. I ended up here because it’s what needs the most attention.
Vickie agrees and wishes community members would press their legislators to prioritize funding early childhood education. She says the need is much larger than the ground they can cover as a nonprofit.
“I wish legislators would look at this from both an economic imperative and a humanity lens,” Vickie says. “We know what happens to these children, and we don’t need to let generations of children go through the same circumstances when we know what’s going to happen on the other end.”
Vickie is referring to the school-to-prison pipeline, which is backed by research that shows that if a child is not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, they are much more likely to end up in prison.
“Our ultimate goal is to ensure that children have access to high quality early childhood education and that they are able to access that in communities in which they live.”
If you would like to support Educational First Steps, you can volunteer or donate via their website. You can also visit the Early Matters Dallas website and sign up for their newsletter to be notified when legislation regarding early childhood education is in session.