Nestled in a bright yellow room off the sanctuary of Columbia City Church of Hope is an emerging preschool with high hopes for its students. When its doors open later this month, you might hear small children singing a protest song or drawing a picture expressing their racial identity. Those activities are part of the curriculum alongside the alphabet and other scholastic objectives. The founders of Columbia City Preschool of Arts and Culture are merging high-quality education with social justice and anti bias education as a core value.
“This is about the water our children are swimming in,” school Director Jasen Frelot said. “Our kids swim in a sea of whiteness and early childhood education has been traditionally a field that’s dominated and controlled by White women.”
Frelot and Director of Operations Benjamin Gore hope to create a space with a different narrative of who is important. For them, it’s crucial to center and honor people of color and other underrepresented populations. They are going beyond just telling kids everyone is equal to actually showing them in staff leadership as well as guests coming to the school to speak to the students.
“When you’re working with, especially the youngest, the two-and-half-year-olds, you can introduce these concepts through really light actions,” Gore said. “Kids at this age are extraordinarily inquisitive, reaching out for knowledge. When you can turn that toward themselves and they’re asking questions about how to make sense of who they are in the world that they’re in. It makes for great conversations.”
Each month they’ll focus on highlighting a nonprofit organization. Representatives from the chosen group will come in to talk to students about their experiences. The kids will then be engaged in ways to support the organization.
“It’s presenting information, allowing for an emotional response around that information,” Frelot said. “Getting creative with coming up with a solution to the problem that organization is teaching the kids about and then helping the children get moving on a solution.”
This process is what Frelot already does with youth who take part in his Kids and Race programs conducted around the city. He said children develop context about who’s important, valuable, beautiful and worthy to be heard at an early age. In our society the answer is most often White people.
Frelot said preschool aged children are the perfect age to learn this information. He points to the findings of a doll study on 3-year-olds as proof. The study showed White, Black and brown children all associated positive attributes such as being good with the White doll versus the darker-skinned doll.
“It’s not too young. It’s the time to start it,” Frelot said. “Any time after that you could argue is too late. Because then you’re at the point of undoing the effects of institutional racism on children. If we get to them soon, which this preschool aims to do, then we’re creating a space where we don’t have to undo this.”
Gore and Frelot both have experience in early childhood education and see this as an opportunity to make a positive impact on the students and their families. As the political climate changes life for minority communities, the work of social justice advocates is paramount.
“It’s forcing people into action who have held these values but not done anything about it. I think that our school will gain traction in a way that it might not have two years ago because of the situation politically,” Gore said. “I left halfway through the school year at a job that’s arguably just on paper the best job I’ve ever had. I’m risking it to do this because I feel like it’s now more than ever just so, so important.”
Frelot also has his own 2-year-old daughter in mind. He wants her to feel valued at school.
“We’re going to be teaching the kids letters and numbers and colors and all of those things right alongside anti bias education,” Frelot said. “This has been a dream of mine for a long time. It feels good to see a vision become a reality.”
The preschool is slated to open Feb. 27. They hope to enroll up to 14 children in the inaugural class and expand in the fall. They are currently accepting applications. Visit their website for more information.