In St. Petersburg’s Black community, the Starling School and Daycare Center is a familiar name.
Viola Starling was fulfilling a dream when she founded the childcare business in 1972. The center, which occupies a block on 28th Street S, continues today in the hands of her descendants.
About four minutes away, Viola Starling’s entrepreneurship perhaps is an example in Childs Park, where Michelle Amons is nurturing her 2Shays Family Daycare Home. She has a waiting list.
The Starling School and 2Shays Family Daycare are among eight childcare facilities and four home-based centers in the city’s southern neighborhoods that have been selected to participate in a United Way Suncoast program launched earlier this year “to transform the lives of preschoolers and their families.”
United Way’s Campbell Park Network for Early Learning focuses on increasing kindergarten readiness of children, from birth to 4, who live in the Campbell Park and other predominantly African-American communities in St. Petersburg.
Earlier this week, Michele Brown, education senior manager with United Way Suncoast, met me at the Starling School and 2Shays. Brown trains licensed early learning providers to prepare children for successful transition to kindergarten. She coaches them, sharing strategies to help them boost students’ learning.
Jennifer Howard-Black is the granddaughter of Starling school’s founder. She’s now the director of the school where she first worked while in high school. Howard-Black said she was inspired by one of her professors at FAMU to continue the establishment her grandmother started.
“I feel responsible to keep the legacy,” she said. “I love what I do. I love making a difference.”
That’s being made easier with assistance from United Way. Brown, who is originally from Indiana and was an educator in Georgia before moving to Florida, explained: “My part is I work with the teachers, coaching them and then they receive a $250 stipend, because it was important to monetize them allowing United Way in. And we also offer professional development online that they can also sign up for, which is an additional $250.”
At Starling, she works mostly with two new teachers. “Basically, I’m giving them little tips and tricks on things to do when they are transitioning, so that children are still learning from one activity to another,” she said. “Giving them strategies to help children learn that are developmentally appropriate and then also any materials that they may need.”
Howard-Black is pleased with the collaboration.
“It’s just been a blessing to have the extra voice,” she said. “It’s good to partner with other people, agencies who can help mold and develop your new staff members in early childhood education … It’s a great support.”
It was in October 2021 that Brown moved from Georgia, where she had taught early childhood for 16 years before being promoted to curriculum specialist and education coach for teachers of children from birth to 5. Her last job before leaving Georgia was with Our House Inc. – near the King Center in Atlanta – where she worked with children from families who were primarily homeless. She also conducted job training for men and women at the shelter.
Brown, who received a Florida coaching certification from the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Early Learning, works with colleague Ulas Butler, who’s also a United Way Suncoast senior manager.
Butler oversees playgroups held mainly at the Campbell Park Neighborhood Resource Center to help parents “understand the value of clear, consistent directions, navigating expectations and enhancing pre-literacy vocabulary growth.”
Howard-Black praised the work Butler does at Starling and added that she’s pleased that teachers, parents and children see an African-American male in his capacity.
The once-a-month playgroup makes a difference, she said. “The children, they get a chance to play with their parents – at school. I love the whole concept. It’s not lecturing … The achievement gap is still alive and well. And I’m constantly encouraging parents to be involved in the playgroup. It kind of paves the way for them to be involved in a school setting.”
Amons is similarly grateful for the help her 2Shays Family Daycare is receiving from United Way. She opened her childcare facility at her Childs Park home in February 2019, offering what she describes as “unique” hours that are especially convenient for healthcare workers. Her center opens from 6 a.m. to 11:59 p.m.
“Childcare doesn’t just stop at 5 p.m. Childcare is needed around the clock, basically with people that are safe. So that’s why I chose those hours. I stuck to those hours, so I operate two shifts,” she said.
She works with very young children. “I start at six weeks and I can go up through 12 years old. But the majority of the kids I have now, they’re between nine months and 2 years old, turning 3.”
Amons, who continues to study to expand her knowledge of the childcare industry, spoke of problems that are affecting children because of the pandemic.
“Of course, that pushed a lot of kids back and you’re noticing the different behaviors, different trends. The kids are not coming in prepared like they used to be. They’re needing more hands-on, more redirection, and so I want to have my environment as available and as kid-friendly as possible. To have them wanting to learn, wanting to explore more,” she said.
“Getting with United Way and them being able to help us out, it helps a lot with the kids wanting to come and not wanting to leave,” she said.
Her goal is to open a center outside of her home.
“I have a waiting list. It’s over 200 children and I can tell you, I can break it down analytically, but the majority of the need is infant, birth through 2.”
“United Way has helped, first of all with the training, of getting together with other providers, just learning different things, getting the children prepared for the next grade level, which would be, of course, kindergarten,” she said.
“I’m seeing the difference. Being able to use assessment tools, getting guidance on how to deal with those children that need a little extra push, and then also being able to use some techniques that they offer, like calming techniques for children that may have behavioral issues and then, along with that, of course, the stipends help for me and my staff.”
She also appreciates the materials that the United Way program has helped provide. “It definitely is a big thing that I appreciate. Because, once I expanded, going from six to 12 kids, I’m like, okay, I need more items that I can’t just go out and buy right away. I let them know I’ve expanded and I have more teachers, that we have a bigger need.”
United Way recently bought over $2,000 in materials for Amons, Brown said.
“Because, of course, with the increased children, you need more things for them to use … Some providers that try to expand sometimes that’s a hindrance. They don’t have the money to have the tables, to have the riding equipment, to have the climbing structures that the children need so they can be successful.”
Among the recent purchases, she said, were tables, chairs, microscopes, reading material, shelving units and material for arts and crafts.
“You want to have the materials so that the children are fighting,” Amons said. “That’s another issue you have to deal with, but you also just want to have nice things for them. You know, some kids might not have the luxury of the different items that they can see and feel and touch and play with at home.”
Contact Ulas Butler at email@example.com, or call (727) 274-0997, to learn about the Campbell Park Network for Early Learning Family Engagement Opportunities.
Contact Michele Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the Campbell Park Network for Early Learning Professional Development Opportunities for current early learning educators and childcare centers.