DALLAS — Bobbie Blair has spent 50 years in preschool, but she swears that this is the year she'll graduate — into retirement.
The Dallas Morning News reports it's not the future that parents want for 74-year-old Ms. Bobbie, who has taught hundreds of kids from South Dallas and Oak Cliff and whose young charges, buoyed by her love, have gone on to make their own mark in this city as cops, teachers and health care professionals.
This school year has hardly started, but Blair is already getting an earful: "'Ms. Bobbie, please don't retire until my baby is done,'" Blair recently said. "I keep saying to them, I'm not gonna keep staying year after year. I'm going to leave in June."
Blair's golden anniversary in early childhood education is quite the accomplishment. It's even more amazing when you consider that she's worked those 50 years in virtually the same spot and for the same nonprofit.
Dallas has changed enormously around Blair's classroom in the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center — located a stone's throw away from the cluster of houses where she began teaching in 1970.
The roots of Blair's employer, ChildCareGroup, which operates six nationally accredited centers in local low-income neighborhoods, stretch back even further — to 1901. That's the year that civic-minded women, concerned about the tough conditions faced by children whose mothers worked in the Dallas cotton mills, stepped up to create day care and kindergarten for them.
The nonprofit's name has changed repeatedly but its mission has not: Try to end the cycle of poverty through a two-generational approach that pairs high-quality early childhood education programs with services that help families increase their self-sufficiency.
ChildCareGroup's mixed-age classrooms include 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds; the children stay with the same teachers their entire time in the program. That model is based on research that children develop empathy and compassion only through a consistent, warm and tenderhearted relationship with another person in those first few years of life.
The curriculum braids together aspects of public prekindergarten with robust early childhood learning, and children qualify based on meeting federal Head Start guidelines. These are the faces of the working poor in Dallas: 74% of families in the six centers are led by single parents and 84% of the adults are working or going to school.
Although ChildCareGroup pays better than many centers and covers educational costs for teachers, such as securing their associate's degrees, salaries in this industry are pathetically low.
So the lifeblood of quality childcare are those excellent teachers committed for reasons other than salary. Those who have a calling — a mission in their heart — for this work.
Every adult hopes and prays that their child will have that teacher who makes an impact.
For children at the MLK center, "Bobbie Blair has been that teacher, who has helped them develop a love for learning, who makes them feel uniquely special and cared about," Tori Mannes, ChildCareGroup president and CEO, said.
Blair speaks plainly and from the heart — and she doesn't believe that her tenure of 50 years is anything exceptional or sets her apart from the other great teachers she works alongside. "This is my life's journey," she said. "People like myself, we're needed. The reward comes with the children."
At age 16, after her father's death, Ms. Bobbie moved with the rest of her family to South Dallas from the small Central Texas town of Wortham. Married at 19, she soon had a young son, Walter, to care for and was mostly content as a stay-at-home mom.
But she also had a dream — instilled in her by a high school teacher. "She was short like me, dark like me, and it hit me that I wanted to be a teacher too," Blair recalled. "I admired her and I wanted to be like her."
One of Blair's neighbors had talked enthusiastically about her job caring for children at one of the four houses that made up what was then called Crossroads Center. When another spot came open, Blair applied, and she has been there ever since.
"There was a need for good people to be in child care," Blair said. "Teach them and love on them and give them everything I could. I felt I had a lot to give — I had a lot of love, that's for sure."
Blair says she took to heart the first lesson taught to her by the head teacher in 1970, Mattie Lou Lawrence: "Be the best you can be." Even after all these years, Blair still takes courses that help sharpen her skills.
Ms. Bobbie's classroom, where she co-teaches with Dallas Independent School District pre-K instructor Deborah Mumphrey-Smith, is a haven for children whose lives outside the MLK center are often stressful and sometimes unstable.
Blair chuckled when asked about how times have changed. "Yes, they have, but not always for the better," she said. Parents "often don't have the time to take the time to do what needs to be done for the child," she said.
Mannes put it like this: "They don't love their children less, but the things they have to face every day — those are the things that take me to my knees. 'Do they have a stable place to live? Can they get their kids home and have enough food on the table?' "
In contrast, Blair's classroom is a place of gentle voices, sheepish giggles and keen attention. She infuses a day of learning with a huge heaping of love, delivered by her richly honeyed litany of encouragement and her open arms for all the youngsters who clamor for her hugs.
Scooting nimbly from spot to spot on the carpet during group time, this 74-year-old is a firecracker of energy: leading a "call-and-response" recitation of Dr. Seuss' The Foot Book, helping the kids partner up for "Twinkle, twinkle, little star. What a wonderful child you are," and rotating between games designed to help the children learn letters and their sounds.
When the smallest child successfully names every shape on the board, all his classmates cheer enthusiastically. Another loudly whispers into Ms. Bobbie's ear that her friend is feeling sad and needs the teacher. Blair says some of the most important lessons are "teaching them to respect themselves and adults."
The children were also busy with a group scavenger hunt to find numbers in sequential order throughout the classroom.
"You guys are wearing me out," Ms. Blair laughed — although that hardly looked to be the case.
Small moments stand out to Ms. Bobbie, such as when former preschoolers — now teachers themselves at Madison High School, just across Meyers Street from Blair's classroom — stop by and tell her they are teaching because of her.
"So many parents see me, like at the store — 'I thought that was you. My baby is doing so well, and it's all because of you.' Things like that make it even more worthwhile."