Fortress Early Learning Center
Engaging youth today and equipping them for tomorrow
“Can I have more of the yellow beans?” a four year-old preschooler asked.
“Yes, you can have more. That’s called corn,” a Fortress teacher answered.
Interactions like this one helped define a need and spur a vision for creating a full-time preschool program at Fortress Youth Development Center, located in a highly impoverished area in southeast Fort Worth. Nearly a decade ago, Fortress Executive Director Terri Henson began envisioning a way to support working moms in this community by providing a learning-rich environment for their young children to grow and develop.
Fortress Ministries began in 1998 as a suburban church’s inner-city outreach offering summer and afterschool programs, and in 2005 was incorporated as Fortress Youth Development Center (YDC) as an independent 501(c)(3). Today, it provides five core programs to Fort Worth’s Near Southeast community:
- Fortress Early Learning Center (preschool for age 18 months to 4 years)
- Fortress After-School (afternoon learning for pre-K through 8th grade)
- Summer Jam (summer learning and camp)
- Ignite (mentoring for children ages 5-12)
- Equip (parent engagement program)
Each year, Fortress serves approximately 150 children and families living within the district boundaries of IM Terrell and Van-Zandt-Guinn Elementary Schools. Fortress’ overarching goal is to bring hope to the lives of at-risk youth in this community by providing resources that will help them break the cycle of generational poverty.
The Fortress Early Learning Center originally started in 2008 as a “mother’s day out” program on Monday and Wednesday mornings, provided free-of-charge to the young mothers in the community. It soon became evident to the Fortress staff that the children enrolled needed more than just playtime and a nurturing environment.
These preschoolers were in need of a more robust curriculum that would help them learn critical concepts for kindergarten, including numbers, colors, and shapes, how to stand in line, and how to raise their hand. Terri and her team became intentional about providing this much-needed school readiness training.
But the Fortress Early Learning Center still struggled with physical constraints of operating out of a 110 year-old building that simultaneously housed four other active programs for the neighborhood’s children and families.
By building a solid foundation of community support, Fortress Early Learning Center was able to complete the construction of four new preschool classrooms in May 2016. The new stand-alone buildings would enable the preschool program to operate full-time, and obtain licensure through the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Officially launched in September 2016, Fortress Early Learning Center now provides full-day preschool – along with breakfast, lunch, and snacks – to 60 children between the ages of 18 months and four years. The Center engages students in age-appropriate activities focused on building their social, cognitive, and motor skills. Activities like “circle time” provide an opportunity for children to sit as a group and sing, enjoy stories, learn the alphabet, numbers, colors and shapes. “Table time” reinforces core lessons through a specific focus on early literacy and math concepts.
In place of tuition, Fortress requires a commitment of 15 hours of involvement per school year from the parents of the children it serves. This may include participation in parenting classes, family fun nights, home visits, volunteer opportunities, or enrichment seminars. This parent involvement program (called Equip) has helped effectively engage the parent community, raising parents’ awareness and interest in the social and academic needs of their children, and heightening their desire and willingness to advocate for their children’s needs.
In order to fulfill its promise to the community to EQUIP academically, ENGAGE relationally, and IGNITE spiritually, Fortress partners with local industry leaders to ensure high quality across all of its programming. CampFire First Texas bolsters Fortress’ professional development, curriculum, and teacher training, and The Parenting Center helps facilitate parent engagement sessions onsite at Fortress as part of its Equip program.
Fortress Early Learning Center is working in alignment across all of its program areas to help augment early academic outcomes, enhance the social and emotional growth of its students, and strengthen the families that it serves. Through this new valuable community preschool program, Fortress will continue its legacy of building the next generation of thriving students, citizens, and leaders.