Photo courtesy of Kim Frusciante
The Move to Make Early Childcare Better — for Kids and Teachers
Kim Frusciante’s efforts to be an “early partner” for NoLa families
Kim Frusciante’s compulsive mom research mode served her well. For years, while she was teaching in high schools in New Orleans, something kept nagging at her. The city had been working hard on school reform since Hurricane Katrina, and much had improved, but there were still problems.
“I started asking questions about what was happening in middle school,” she says. “Our high school students were coming into ninth grade two to three years behind in reading and we were playing catch up.”
In contrast, Frusciante, a part-time student in the School Leadership Program, saw that her own young daughter was doing well.
“I went into my compulsive mom research mode that led me to the Zaentz Center and the research around early brain development,” she says. “I realized I wanted to be spending my time with that malleable age group. I looked around for work being done locally that was equitable and scalable but wasn’t finding it.”
At the time, she was also touring early childcare centers in search of a new spot for her daughter. Although she liked their current center, there was rampant staff turnover.
“I would so often turn her over to a complete stranger,” Frusciante says. It was a problem other families across the state were also grappling with: According to the Louisiana Policy Institute, nearly half of all Louisiana parents report regularly missing work because of childcare issues, while absences and turnover related to childcare were costing Louisiana employers more than $800 million annually. Eventually, Frusciante found a good school for her daughter, but there were other concerns: Its hefty price tag was not accessible to many in the city. “That was unacceptable to me.” And she wasn’t happy with the way preschool teachers were valued.
“I didn’t feel satisfied with the level of quality or even the assumptions we have for early childhood education,” she says. “Paying teachers $10 and hour — that’s absurd, especially when we know this is such an important age. What was happening with practice didn’t align with what the research was telling me.”
With this in mind, Frusciante decided to start her own pilot childcare program during the summer of 2018 for 3-year-old’s, funded by the New Schools Venture Fund. Initially created as a for-profit, her idea was to run it like a business, but use profits to raise the quality of the programming and better pay teachers.
“Then the pandemic hit. I was about to close in April 2020 on an employer contract,” she says. The pause offered her a moment of reflection — and the opportunity to go back to school, virtually and part-time. “The summer of 2020, I didn’t know what the heck the future would hold. When I applied to the Ed School, it was a program I’d always had my eye on but assumed I’d never have the opportunity. There was no world in which we were going to uproot our family for a one-year program in Cambridge.”
During the pause, she turned her for-profit into a nonprofit.
“The journey to the conversion into a nonprofit is one I’m so grateful for,” she says. Once she started at the Ed School, everything she did now centered around her new school, which she named Early Partners. “I picked all of my courses around what I needed for Early Partners.”
The center opened in August 2021 with two classes of three-year-olds tucked in a community school in Tremé, one of New Orleans oldest neighborhoods. The student body is intentionally diverse, and the classrooms showcase Early Partner’s child-centered approach to learning.
“We follow kids' leads. If kids are excited about what they’re learning, they’re way more likely to be interested in what they’re doing,” Frusciante says. “For example, one day, they weren’t as interested in forests as the teachers assumed they’d be, but they became obsessed with cactus and all things cacti. They ended up creating a 7-foot-tall Seguro cactus made from used materials and talked about engineering. They had a kiddie pool and sand and brainstormed what you’d need to survive in this environment. They talked about the kinds of animals that would live there and their relationship to humans.”
Frusciante has intentionally made the program within reach of most residents, with tuition running anywhere from $100 a month to about a $1,000. They haven’t had to turn any students away for financial reasons. “We want the program to be accessible.”
A unique aspect is their partnership with two local hotels, the Windsor Court Hotel and Hotel Saint Vincent, offering priority enrollments for hotel employees. They also host weekly workshops for parents. “It sits nicely with our equity-centered mission.”
Teachers are also treated like professionals, she says.
“We offer true instructional support for our teachers,” she says, including professional development and designated time to collaborate and observe one another’s classrooms. “Our lead teachers also have pay parity with K–12 teachers and full benefits — everything they’d have in a district or charter school.” Average early childcare pay in their area is about $8.90 an hour with 40% teacher turnover. “We’re really putting a stake in the ground, saying consistency is important in child development. We take care of our teachers because then they can take better care of our little ones. The women who are doing this work — I have two single moms. There’s no way they could do this job if we weren’t paying them an equitable wage.”
In turn, her teachers show up for the students.
“They’ve far exceeded my expectations for what I expected this year,” Frusciante says. “Their hard work, dedication, and skill have made instruction come alive in a way that I never could have imagined. This has led to more growth than I even thought possible.”
This coming August, Early Partners will be moving into a stand-alone facility that was once New Orleans’ first firehouse. “We have 75 kids, starting with age 1 through preK4.” Her son, who was about a month old when she started her first pilot in 2018, will be in the mix.
She says she’s thankful for how the Ed School has helped her grow her vision for high-quality childcare centers in New Orleans.
“Initially, I was so excited to see Junlei [Li] in real life. It was a delight to learn directly from him and from Stephanie Jones,” she says. “I wrote our theory of change, and they helped every step of the way. It’s now what we give to our investors.” She says other faculty, like Tina Blythe and Meredith Rowe, guided Early Partner’s approach to teaching and learning. Tools from Joe McIntyre's class on questionnaires and surveys were crucial in gathering parent feedback. Irvin Scott's class on Race, Equity, and Leadership shaped her personally and professionally, and Mary Grassa O'Neill influenced her leadership style. Even Gutman Library’s “Comm Lab” gave feedback on the center’s printed materials and website.
“Literally every person I've interacted with at HGSE has helped me in some way,” she says. “I'm gushing now, so I'll stop.”
Learn more: https://earlypartners.org