By Alex Gonzalez

A daycare center in Plano seeks to implement diversity in the classroom – both among its students, and its leaders. Since its opening in 2015, First Impression Learning Center has served as an education facility, as well as a hub of cultures coming together. And in this day and age, amongst conversations of book bans and erasures of history, a diverse learning landscape is more vital now than ever.

First Impression is run by Lisa Kelley and her daughter-in-law, Ashley Tolbert. Kelley felt compelled to open a Black-owned childcare facility after noticing that her granddaughter didn’t appear to enjoy attending private school in Plano.

“I noticed every time I would drop her off, and pick her up, something just didn’t sit quite well with me,” says Kelley. “And so I started talking to her mom a lot about if she noticed any changes in her behavior. At the school that she was attending, she was the only African American student in the classroom, and there were no African American teachers. So I was just like, ‘You know, in Plano, we need more diversity. I was talking to my husband about it, and I was like, “You know what, let’s open up a school.”

Kelley notes that several parents have enrolled their kids at First Impression simply because they are a Black-owned school, to which she often replies “Don’t let that be the only reason.” Kelley and Tolbert aim to ingrain various components of education within their students, in terms of academic learning, as well as social emotional learning. 

Tolbert describes a “STEM-based program” First Impression offers, which allows students to learn about science by “challenging them in a fun way.” She also emphasizes the importance of teaching students good communication skills, especially from infancy to three years old.

“They’re like sponges [at that age], so it’s very vital that we implement a really good social developmental aspect and try to expose them to so much more,” says Tolbert. “Because those are the skills that they use, especially when they go off to elementary school.”

But the learning doesn’t stop there. Both Kelley and Tolbert aim to build community and address issues and behaviors that often go overlooked in predominantly white schools. 

According to Kelley, one of the reasons parents enroll their kids at First Impression is due to the fact that they were “labeled with behavioral problems” at their previous schools. Kelley herself has noticed that a lot of students walk into class with their heads facing the ground.

Taking a more old school approach, Kelley requires students to give her eye contact upon entering the classroom and speaking with her. She also makes it a point to tell her students every single day where they’re doing well. 

“Some of the things that I’ve noticed is that it’s not that [the children] have behavior issues, but they have to just feel that you care,” says Kelley. “A lot of times we read these books that tell us, ‘This is what a child should be doing at this stage.’…We have parents that come to us and say ‘We want them there because they need social skills…and what I tell them is that we have to start right now–in a little things that our parents did, as far as saying ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and holding your head up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is no question that’s not important.”

Kelley and Tolbert find that the students are embracing diversity, particularly in the library, where they keep an assortment of books about culture, featuring characters of different backgrounds. They say that the children are often excited to read these books and gravitate toward the books featuring characters that don’t look like them. “The Hispanic students want to read the books about the African American students,” says Kelley. “They all want to learn about different cultures.”

“We try to acknowledge every culture that’s within our facility,” adds Tolbert. “That can be through words, book, puzzles, or posters, or through having someone from the outside come speak or demonstrate.”

In addition to combatting obstacles within the classroom, Kelley and Tolbert hope to alleviate some of the struggles the parents of these students are facing. According to a study by The Wall Street Journal, childcare prices are rising at nearly twice the overall inflation rate. Kelley says that in the eight years First Impression has been opened, they have only raised their rates once. As a result of keeping costs affordable, Kelley and Tolbert note that many parents are relieved, as they won’t have to worry about whether they’ll be able to pay for their own student loans. They also are happy that they can put their children in quality care, as they pursue their own careers, and not have to worry if they’ll have to home-educate their children.

Through their conscious efforts, Kelley and Tolbert have created an optimal environment for their students, and better circumstances for their parents. Many of these parents have come back to visit Kelley and Tolbert, thanking them for the impact they’ve made, and how they continue to make a difference eight years into their mission.

“We’re a family here,” says Tolbert. “All of the parent we build a relationship with is personal and it’s not just about us. We really want to make an impact on our children in a positive way, and help our families out as much as possible.”