In one classroom, 3-year-old yoga students on blue mats shifted like pros into their “downward dog” and “warrior” positions. In another, 4-year-olds tapped beats on drums to practice counting.
Down the hall, other preschoolers created paper pyramids and squares to be tossed in a game. Each side of the figures revealed a direction such as “Count to 50” or “Do something nice for someone.”
This was Saturday School at Los Ninos Primero, now in its 16th year of serving Latino children in a year-round educational program at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Sandy Springs.
For the little ones, the morning was all about fun.
For their teachers, fun is a power tool for building a passion for learning, and for nipping in the bud the inhibitors to kindergarten readiness that can arise from language and cultural differences and socioeconomic situations.
Every activity had a role in that mission — even yoga, which they teach to prepare the children to deal with stress.
Executive Director Maritza Morelli, a child psychologist, is very sensitive to that need.
“The school and the church are very open and protective and embracing,” Morelli said, “but this is a very different environment than we see in some other ways.”
Veronica Toscano de Leger, director of the Georgia Liaison Office of the state government of Guanajuato in Mexico, said Los Ninos Primero is helping children who may have difficult home lives flourish with confidence in a loving, welcoming environment.
“That makes a difference in a child. It makes them start working harder to succeed,” she said. “You can see the passion when they play an instrument, the passion when people care for them.”
A church bus picks the children up from across Sandy Springs, where 14 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino. Ninety-nine percent of the program’s children were born in the U.S. and their first language is Spanish. Most of them are from low-income families.
Steve Whisenant, CEO of Haven Campus Communities, was the founding chairman of Los Ninos Primero’s board of directors. He said the nonprofit program was born out of Mount Vernon’s research on the needs of the area’s growing Latino population. “We found out very quickly that to say it was underserved was an understatement,” he said.
Los Ninos Primero began as a two-week summer program that served 17 children on the preschool campus of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.
Today, 250 children participate in its free programs: the three-hour plus lunch Saturday School for 3- and 4-year-olds; a month-long summer program for ages 3 to 6; and weekday extracurricular activities for ages 5 and up. Orchestra, soccer, karate and chorus are offered.
All of the program’s 15 teachers are certified and paid, except for a volunteer retired teacher. They are assisted by dozens of volunteers, including many former Los Ninos Primero students.
“I think we’ve had about 1,000 children come through this program,” said Whisenant, who now serves on the program’s development committee. “I’ve been pleased with the ability to stay viable and to grow, and to have a lot of people who feel like we’ve done the right thing, for the right reasons.”
Summer program teacher Katrina Verde sees first-hand the difference Los Ninos Primero makes in school preparedness. She is a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Springs’ Lake Forest Elementary School, a school where 94 percent of students are Hispanic and 59 percent of students receive language services.
“Programs like Los Ninos are pretty vital for these kids,” Verde said. “We want to bridge the academic gap so that nobody would notice a difference between kids who come from Lake Forest and the kids who come from other schools in our cluster.”
Morelli was lead bilingual community liaison for the Fulton County school system when she was asked to create and lead Los Ninos Primero.
The Venezuelan native was a perfect fit. “Being an immigrant myself, I understand how difficult it is for the parents to understand the school’s expectations,” Morelli said.
Parent involvement is not only key here, it is required.
“I want parents to feel that that they have something valuable to offer, to help and to feel proud of their own culture,” she said. “Building their self-confidence will help the children.”
Morelli said parents help with fundraising, go on cultural field trips, and must attend at least 50 percent of the classes offered to them, such as school system expectations, their “rights as human beings” and stress management.
“I’m planting hope in these parents that their children can go to college, because they were born here and they have more opportunity,” Morelli said. “They have to believe that. And they will learn, little by little, the steps they need to to make sure the kids are on track.”
Fifty percent of the program’s first 17 students are in college, and Carmen Morales, 15, is headed that way. The Riverwood International Charter School student plans a future in medicine, education or criminal justice.
She grew up with Los Ninos Primero, starting in the program as a 3-year-old and staying connected through her family’s participation and her volunteer work as the program’s assistant soccer coach.
“They gave me fond memories of my childhood and I want to give that back to them,” Carmen said.
She said the program is like a small community for its families.
Carmen’s parents came to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago. She rarely sees her father, except on weekends, because he works two jobs. Her mother works nights cleaning three floors of an office building.
“You learn about people who might have the same story as us,” Carmen said, “like the struggle of getting here and then wanting their children to have a better future than them. … I wish there were more people like Ms. Maritza.”
— Donna Williams Lewis