Housed inside a small pink and purple building on the corner of Industrial Avenue and South Main Street, children as young as 2 years old are learning how to read years ahead of the average age.
The U.S. Department of Education suggests most children can read around 5 or 6.
At the Harvest Corner Child Kare Center, co-directors and sisters Mae Crews and Emily Beard said their pre-school program aims to provide children with a solid educational foundation and strong values in a nurturing environment.
“Our mission is to provide each youth with the essential skills … necessary to live out God’s purpose or plan for their lives,” said Crews, as she sat in the day care’s administrative office.
The sisters founded the day care center in 2008 after they had both retired from decades in the education field, bringing a combined 80 to 85 years of experience as educators.
Both have worked in Danville and Pittsylvania County public schools. Crews also worked at Howard University and Old Dominion University; and Beard worked in North Carolina schools.
In that time, they noticed that children weren’t starting off with a quality foundation of values, saying there was “a great need.”
So, they decided to open the day care center to combine a rigorous academic program with self-empowerment through Christian values, becoming one of two black-owned child care centers in the city.
“We felt a call to try to make a difference,” said Crews.
By running a child care center, Beard said they’re able to “work with the whole child, not just academically but socially, spiritually and physically.”
Coming from humble beginnings themselves, Beard and Crews said their mother raised them on her own and credited their spirituality for their own success.
“With prayer and hard work, we are where we are today,” said Crews.
“And lots of encouragement and love,” Beard added, her eyes slightly crinkled with a warm smile.
“Yes, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” Crews finished, with a smile of her own.
Harvest Corner offers a wide range of educational and child care services, from preschool to afterschool programs and tutoring. They also put on a six-week summer camp called Camp Self-Esteem with STEM that people travel from as far as north as Alexandria and as far south as Burlington, North Carolina, to attend.
Crews said families from Richmond have told her that “they have looked the city over, and they can’t find anybody that does what we do.”
Aside from Crews and Beard on the administrative side, the center is staffed by two full-time teachers.
The preschool program accepts ages 2 through 4 throughout the school year, taking a break during the summer. In combination with child care, those enrolled in the preschool program could stay at the center from 6:30 a.m. to around 5:30 p.m.
Janay Singletary, a single mother herself, said she’s enrolled the two of her three children in Harvest Corner after hearing about it from her sister and called their academic program “immaculate.”
“My oldest, she missed out,” said Singletary with a laugh.
Her son, now 5, just started kindergarten in Pittsylvania County Schools after going through the preschool program for two years, while her youngest daughter, 4, was enrolled last August.
“He’s one of the top in his class because of the structure in the program he was given at Harvest Corner,” Singletary said, noting that he scored in the top 10 percent on his assessment test a year before entering kindergarten.
Crews said they recognize that research shows around 85 percent of the brain develops by the time a child reaches 5 years old. This is a “critical time in their brain development,” she said.
Unlike in other settings where a child ahead in the curriculum may be pulled out, Crews said they continue to teach them on as high a grade level as they progress before leaving the program.
“We try to take advantage of that by teaching them as much as they’re capable of learning,” said Crews. This results in have 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds reading before kindergarten.
Beard said, “We have high expectations and know their needs. We’re trying to have them classroom-ready by the time they walk into kindergarten.”
As a shy kid, Singletary said the summer program also helped her son become more comfortable around other children.
“I can see it now especially since he’s in kindergarten,” she said.
For her daughter, Singletary said she appreciates the discipline and structure that the child care center gives her more defiant child.
“I appreciate that they’re trying to work with her now that way when she gets into the school system they don’t think she’s behind,” she said. “She was in a different day care, and they would just let her run wild.”
Singletary said she moved her daughter from a public preschool to Harvest Corner, and since then, she’s begun to see behavioral improvements.
Crews said they leave all the kids together regardless of age in the preschool program, and it plays a key role in their social development; the older children model the right behavior for the younger ones.
Both the afterschool program and Camp Self-Esteem allows children between 2 and 12. The summer camp runs all day five days a week for six weeks.
Beard and Crews said they’ve seen huge changes in the children who go through either program.
In both of them, they try to emphasize at a young age how their choices affect them and different options for the future. Crews said they include a career day element in the summer program every year.
“What we’re providing them will enable them to make wise choices,” said Beard.
This hit particularly close to home for Crews, who lost her son to gun violence. She said he was raised in a Christian home but started making some bad choices that eventually led him to his death.
Crews said, “We want them to have the knowledge of the fact that that route is not the only path they can take in life and be successful.”
They said one girl who went through the afterschool program is about to graduate from high school with honors, boasting over a 4.0 GPA. Before the program, they said her low self-esteem held her back academically and with her attitude.
“It was just about helping her to realize she was really capable of doing better,” said Crews.
Right now, the day care center serves 12 with their preschool program and seven in their afterschool program. They said they’re licensed to serve up to 27 children.
Crews said the registration process for all of their programs is ongoing, and they don’t require children to be screened before entering the preschool program.