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Arlington Pre-K Educators Talk Struggles in Diversity and Coronavirus Recovery

(Updated at 4:10 p.m.) Lauren Harris and Portia Moore were best friends growing up and both ended up launching preschool programs in Arlington. Their experiences highlight some of the differences between North and South Arlington and the county’s deep economic divisions.

Harris is the CEO and Executive Director of Little Ambassadors’ Academy, which has three locations in Arlington along Lee Highway. Moore owns STEM Preschool, which has locations in Fairlington and Capitol Hill in D.C.

“Arlington definitely has a high demand for quality preschools,” Harris said. “I think Portia and I both try to fill that void. The reality of the situation in Arlington is that there are more kids than there are preschool slots… It’s hard to find quality childcare, and harder to find one close to where you live and have that community feel.”

Moore said both of their programs are also very localized to their respective areas.

“It’s about the neighborhoods,” Moore said. “Lauren has the north side locked down. I chose to go to Fairlington because it’s such an amazing family community.”

Moore said it’s also an industry where it’s not unusual for the majority of providers to be people of color. Moore said she likes the diversity of her staff and community, while for Harris that’s a more difficult goal to achieve in North Arlington.

“Arlington is diverse, but on my side of Arlington, it’s significantly less diverse,” Harris said. “My staff are sometimes the only people of color that these children interact with. But I don’t think that we specifically put out that we’re a Black business. We’re preschool owners; we happen to be Black and we happen to be women, but we don’t think of ourselves as Black women-owned. We do great things for the community and we happen to be Black women.”

For Moore, the K-12 schools the children in Fairlington will go into tend to be more diverse.

“For my schools, they all go to other schools where there are all types of diversity and nationalities,” Moore said.

Moore moved to Arlington from Texas when she was ten and said she developed friends here across all sorts of nationality and racial lines. She said there’s a drive towards diversity in the county, but one that sometimes clashes with parents who moved into neighborhoods hoping their students would go to school perceived as being better than others.

“I know Arlington has been trying its best to have different boundaries, so there’s always a fight for integration,” Moore said, “I get the parent’s point too. I paid for a neighborhood I want my children to go there. However, it’s also important for integration, for times like this, for children to have a different mindset and meet someone you may not see in your neighborhood.”

Harris said roughly 97% percent of her school’s population is White. The majority of her students wind up going to Nottingham Elementary School, the student body of which is only 0.4% Black, according to APS data.

“My daughter is the only person of color in her Pre-K classroom,” Harris said. “Absolutely, while we do hope to bring diversity, we bring it to our staff and through our culture that we give and the lessons we teach our children.”

Harris said there’s a sense of responsibility, both in her interactions with children and sometimes in interactions with parents.

“I do feel a sense of responsibility, but I also feel a responsibility of ‘do I have a relationship with this child and does this child trust me,” Harris said. “Children are open states, if you show love to them, they’ll love you. The other portion is that I may be the first person of color businesswoman these parents have interacted with. Children come in open arms and ready to go. They might have some preconceived notions that they pick up that we work through because that’s life, but that’s how children develop. But I may be one of the only black woman, person of color, their parents have dealt with.”

For Harris, there has some pushback on her business that Moore said she hasn’t experienced in the same way in South Arlington. While the negative experiences with the community are by far the minority, Harris said they do happen.

“I’ll never forget this, it shook me to my core,” said Harris. “I had a parent that was interested in putting their child in the program and he didn’t like my prices. He said ‘what do you know anyway, you’re just an n-word.’ I was taken back.”

Meanwhile, both Harris and Moore have been working through very different strategies for surviving the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve been open since the pandemic happened in Fairlington,” Moore said. “The impact was [significant]. We have a max of 106 students and we were almost at our max, now it’s 39 children coming to classes. And that’s pretty good, at first it was 15.”

The experience for those remaining at STEM Preschool is different, however. Children don’t mingle and parents can’t come inside the building. Teachers wear masks. Every day, Moore said, is trying to adapt to new standards and manage reopening.

Moore said she was able to get a Payroll Protection Program loan, which she was grateful for as it allowed her to keep all of the staff that wanted to continue working.

Little Ambassadors’ Academy, on the other hand, closed right after the pandemic started and is planning to reopen this Monday, June 15.

“We’ll have been closed for three months to the day,” Harris said. “We have continued to pay our teachers and switched to an online school platform. We know how wonderful and trying that can be. It has been significantly hard.”

Like Moore, Harris was able to get a PPP loan that kept the business alive and continuing to pay teachers.

As they prepare to reopen, both Harris and Moore said they are hoping for more guidance from Virginia and Arlington County. Currently, both said many local Pre-K instructors are adapting standards put out by Texas and North Carolina, because they’re more detailed and useful than the page or two of information that Virginia and Arlington County have put together.

“Arlington is an amazing community, a family community, but at the same time I think for any business — not just Black-owned — helping businesses needs to be better,” Moore said. “The Mayor in D.C. gave us tons of hand sanitizer and 2,000 masks and disinfectant. I haven’t seen anything for Arlington County.”

“We’re trying to make it work,” Harris said. “We’re not looking for handouts, but just give us the guidance we need to operate effectively. I think we’re missing that portion at this moment.”

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