EDUCATION See Dick Build a Tepee

An East Dallas preschool teaches kids that it’s no longer a white-bread world.

NO PILGRIMS COULD BE FOUND at my 4-year-old’s preschool Harvest Feast this fall. At tables decorated with miniature lodge houses made and painted by kids, we ate Thanksgiving turkey, along with Indian fry bread and succotash, preceded by a Navaho prayer. “May happiness go before you,” Andrew intoned, along with the other students and teachers. “May happiness go behind you. May happiness go all around you.”

He swung his arms in the appropriate gestures. “May the Great Spirit go before you.”

For a month, Andrew and the other students at The Learning Tree in East Dallas had been exploring Native-American cultures. He came home with a “coup stick,” a wood shaft decorated with feathers, which Plains Indians used to commemorate brave deeds. He began using his hands to make “the sign of the buffalo.” On his bedroom door was his “picture-skin story,” brown paper shaped like an animal skin and painted with symbols telling a story he made up, much as the Sioux Indians once did. He brought home an Apache “burden basket,’1 a cone-shaped basket with bottle caps and beads attached to the ends. Andrew explained that this was to scare away snakes in the tall so he could find pecans.

The kid is 4 and he knows more about Native Americans (than I do.

Though I didn’t realize it when I enrolled Andrew at The Learning Tree, the preschool is known around the country for its emphasis on multicultural education. All I had known was that it had a warm, loving atmosphere. Other parents told me about the African market the students have each spring, where they make and sell crafts and food. They told me about the Mexican potluck Christmas supper. They told me about the unusual crafts made by the students, who range from ages 2 to 6. It’s a school where Andrew can learn that the world is a fascinating place, that not everybody is like him, that not all mommies and daddies are like his mother and father.

That was something brought home to me by my own father when I was trying to find a kindergarten for Eric, my oldest son who is now 7. I visited private schools, unsure about sending him to the DISD facility only a half-block from my house. I was concerned not only about the quality of the education, but what it would be like for Eric to be in the minority; the DISD is about 82 percent non-white. When I mentioned my dilemma to my rather, a general contractor who lives in Houston, he looked at me as if I had lost my mind for even considering a private-inevitably mostly white-school. “That is not the real world,” he told me. In 20 years, he said, whites will be in the minority not only in Dallas and Houston, but in the entire state of Texas. Not only do his grandsons need a good education, they also need to get along with people from every culture.

What could I say? He’s my dad.

And, I realized, he’s right. The world I grew up in is not going to be Eric and Andrew’s world. During elementary school, when we lived in Boling near the Gulf Coast, a cultural experience was going to Alex’s Mexican Cafe for tamales. Though there were black kids at my school, we never visited each other’s homes. I didn’t meet an Asian until I was in college and tutored a student from Taiwan in English. (He invited me to his house for a feast. One of the main dishes was what appeared to be squid and spaghetti. I chewed gamely, trying not to let on that squid was not anything I remotely considered food.)

Since Eric was a toddler, I had schlepped him to cultural events like the annual American Indian Art Festival and Cinco de Mayo. But it seemed that those festivities, while fun, were not as vital as making friends with children from varied backgrounds. In that spirit, I enrolled Eric at Sanger Elementary.

When it was time to find Andrew a preschool, other parents with the same priorities told me all the things they liked about The Learning Tree. But they didn’t tell me about Judy Allen, one of the school’s founders. Silver-haired, blessed with endless patience, Allen is the reason The Learning Tree is unlike any other school in Dallas.

Allen, along with two other women, is the author of a book called Cultural Awareness for Children, which has become a standard in teacher education across the country. It’s used as a textbook at the State University of New York and the University of Indiana, among others. Teachers from Australia, Germany, Taiwan and Japan have bought copies. Her co-authors are Earldene McNeil, instructor of child development at Eastfield College, and the late Velma Schmidt, who was a professor of early childhood education at The University of North Texas.

Allen and McNeill, who started The Learning Tree 22 years ago, met Schmidt when they began taking graduate courses at UNT. As an outgrowth of their teaching at the school, the two developed a multicultural curriculum. Schmidt realized they were on to something unique and urged them to write a book. Allen and McNeill not only wrote it, they published and distributed it themselves. “We wanted other teachers to do what we were doing,” Allen says. In 1981, another publisher agreed to print the book’s second edition, though the authors still handled distribution.

That edition was so successful that Addison-Wesley Publishing Company bought the rights to the third edition. Last fall, the first printing of 3,000 books quickly sold out. Cultural Awareness for Children helps teachers guide very young children through other cultures, including African. Mexican, Native American, Chinese, Japanese and several other Asian cultures. In the new edition of the book, the cowboy culture has been taken out and the Eskimo integrated into Native American culture.

“The new publishers didn’t think cowboy was culture.” Allen says. “We argued with them all the way.” It includes a section for instructors who teach English as a second language to Southeast Asian children and discusses the importance of dispelling stereotypes. For example, to American Indians, the words squaw and papoose are offensive.

But mostly the book talks about fun: crafts, food, music and dances. For example, in the weeks before Christmas, kids at The Learning Tree enact the Mexican posadas, drink “chocolate mexicana” mixed with a beater called a molina and make pinatas. They talk about the Swedish legend of Santa Lucia and the Star Boys, and the Italian la Befana, a little old lady who rides her broom from house to house looking for the Christ child. And they learn about Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.

In early fall, the focus was Chinese culture. Andrew went to a Chinese grocery, made feng cheng (kites) and teng lung (lanterns). He and I talked about China after school. He was fascinated, though I wasn’t completely sure how much he was really learning. This was humorously enforced one afternoon when, after locating China on the globe, he suddenly asked me where babies came out of their mommies.

Now, I’m a modern American mommy. I had already told Andrew bits and pieces about sex and birth, as opportunities arose. I always use the right words and give him accurate, if slightly simplified, information. So though I was surprised by the swift change in our conversation, I was ready with an explanation about how mommies have a passage called a vagina.

He thought about that briefly, then asked with a sense of wonder, “Do all mommies really have a China?”

When I told Judy Allen this story, she laughed uproariously. She admits that some people question how much preschoolers can remember about their lessons. “There’s a theory that it’s absurd to do this because young children can’t take it all in,” Allen says. “But I think you need to plant seeds early. They don’t retain it all, but they’ll remember enough. Television has made children international citizens.” But the truth is. American children still know little about their counterparts in other countries. When Allen went to Lithuania in 1990 for a two-week teacher exchange, she found the children very knowledgeable about American kids. “They knew about Sesame Street,” Allen says. “We know nothing about Russian children.”

Allen is an unlikely missionary for multicultural education. She was raised in Snyder, a small ranching town in West Texas. The only Mexicans were those who came for the cotton-picking season. Only one Jewish family lived in the town. Black children, after the fifth grade, were driven 80 miles to Lubbock for school, so Snyder’s could remain segregated.

“I remember thinking how unfair it was,” Allen says. When she left Snyder for Arlington State College (now The University of Texas at Arlington), she discovered “a whole new world.” In 1963, she and her husband moved to Dallas and got involved in the civil rights movement. They were alternate delegates from Dallas to the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Allen had been teaching at an all-white Methodist preschool; her husband was the director of a library in South Dallas. In 1970, a year before Dallas schools began full integration, she and McNeill started a preschool dedicated to bringing children from different cultures together: The Learning Tree.

They hired a black teacher and two Mexican-American teachers and gave scholarships to attract children from minority families. In the early years, Mary Lois Sweatt taught African movement and dance. Juanita Elder came from the American Indian Center to talk to the kids about authentic Native American culture. In addition to brown and black children, they had kids from Japanese families, in Dallas for the Japanese Cotton Exchange.

Not only were children exposed to other cultures, but through potluck dinners and other get-togethers, the parents learned a lot as well. After the first year at a church in Mesquite, they moved to their current location at the Casa View United Methodist Church on Ferguson Road. Today, enrollment stands at 65, with about 10 to 15 children per class. Though Allen has looked for another location to increase enrollment, she hasn’t found one that is affordable.

In many ways, Allen was at the forefront of a movement toward multicultural education. “Ten or 15 years ago. it was hard to find children’s storybooks about other cultures that weren’t stereotypes,” she says. “Now, authors from those cultures are writing their folk tales.” Allen’s efforts have been recognized with state and national awards. In 1987, Japanese educators chose The Learning Tree as one of five schools they visited on a tour of the United States.

Though her philosophy has stayed the same, the school has changed over the last decade. Despite Allen’s efforts, The Learning Tree’s enrollment is almost exclusively white; only three students are minority. In the early years, a dozen children from a black church in South Dallas commuted to the school, but Allen says that was difficult for the parents, who wanted their children closer to home. About the same time they started, the public schools began offering free preschool to low-income families. Many of the Asian families now live in Richardson and Plano.

And frankly, Allen says, not that many minority families in the area can afford a private school. The two-day-a-week program for the youngest children costs $125 per month. Daily morning preschool costs S185 per month. Those parents who can afford it are sometimes reluctant to put their kids where they will be in the minority. Two black families from Richardson decided against sending their kids to The Learning Tree this year because no other black families had signed up.

Though the curriculum is similar every year, Allen constantly incorporates new elements. February brings Stonewall Jackson Elementary School’s deaf education class. “Their clown club will come in the spring,” says Allen. Also in February is the African market; kids make African toe puppets, kundis (string instruments) and ishakas (shakers) to sell to parents. The money goes to a child-oriented charity, March brings Japanese culture, then in April and May the children study early Texas pioneer life.

During spring break, Allen will return to Russia and Lithuania, and two teachers from Lithuania will visit the Learning Tree, bringing wooden toys and their own stories, such as the Three Bears, which Allen says is originally a Russian folk tale first written down by Leo Tolstoy.

Will it make a difference for my son to study world cultures at the age of 4? I don’t know, but he’s having a great time. He demands to go to school on Saturdays and is irritated when I explain that there is no school, that no one is there. (He still won’t eat moo goo gai pan. however.) If nothing else, he’ll know the world is a big place, that there are lots of interesting people-very different, but also very similar to him.

It’s a lesson my son Eric, in the second grade at Sanger Elementary, is also learning, though to listen to him, only kids go to school there. I have never-not once- heard him refer to another student by the color of his or her skin. Another mother with a girl in his class reports the same thing. One day, her daughter was pointing out a friend on the playground. The mother asked which girl she was talking about. The daughter said, ’The one in the blue dress.” They were down to the color of the girl’s socks before the mother figured out who she was. Her daughter never pointed out the other child’s black skin.

Stories like that give Judy Allen hope. She tells the tale of one of her former students, Amy Williams, who was in Leningrad during the recent Soviet coup after participating in an exchange program at the University of Moscow. “Her family was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get out,” says Allen. “She didn’t want out. She’s running some kind of entrepreneurial business.”

Amy, from an early age, learned that other cultures weren’t scary, but fascinating, filled with interesting people. It has to begin sometime. Allen believes, and the earlier, the better. “That’s the only way we’ll live peacefully,” Allen says.

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