Marla Dean believes every child can be taught. She should know — she's taught pretty much all of them.
Not every single child who's ever lived, of course, but nearly every type: from magnet-school brainiacs to troubled youngsters who've been expelled from other schools.
"What I fundamentally came to understand is kids are kids, and there's not a lot of difference between them," said Dean, who in December will mark her first anniversary as executive director of Bright Beginnings, a D.C. preschool for children whose families are experiencing homelessness. "What is different are the resources that they have and the social capital they bring to bear in a particular situation."
Kids who grow up in shelters or being shuttled from place to place as their parents seek employment often don't have the resources to excel in school. That's what Bright Beginnings, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, aims to address.
The school was founded in 1990 by the Junior League of Washington. With a $200,000 federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, Bright Beginnings set up in its first location: the basement of the historic Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Shaw. In 1998, it moved to its current home at the Perry School Community Center near North Capitol Street and New York Avenue NW.
Dean, a Detroit native, was introduced to the power of education as a toddler, when her mother went back to school to earn a college degree and took young Marla with her.
"I think what made me absolutely passionate about education was sitting in a classroom when I was a little child," she said.
She earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Michigan before completing a doctorate in educational leadership and organizational theory at the University of Pennsylvania. She taught English and government in Detroit's public school system for 19 years across a spectrum of high schools.
"I wanted to know that I could teach in each and every setting," she said. Plus, "I enjoyed teaching."
Dean relocated to the Washington area in 2007, serving first as an assistant principal in Montgomery County and then working as an administrator in the Alexandria, Prince George's and D.C. public school systems. The job at Bright Beginnings has allowed her to focus on a younger age group.
Bright Beginnings has about 90 children in nine classrooms: six for early Head Start (infants to 3-year-olds) and three for Head Start (3- to 5-year-olds). It's open from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., allowing parents to go to school or hold a job.
Dean said that younger brains are just as malleable as older ones — more so, even. The trauma that comes from being in a bad situation when you're very young — like living in a shelter — can rewire the brain.
"So first of all, we want them to come to a place where they can settle: settle their brains, settle their emotions, settle themselves," Dean said. "Once everyone is safe and in a more settled space, we can start to think about next steps, like making sure all of our children are kindergarten-ready in their literacy and numeracy markers."
Bright Beginnings does more than teach kids to recognize letters and numbers.
"So many kids have never been taught how to express their emotions," Dean said. "They don't have the language. They just bottle up and they explode."
Bright Beginnings teachers work on helping kids connect with one another, "so they see themselves as part of something larger than themselves," Dean said.
At the same time, Bright Beginnings offers programs for moms and dads — parenting classes, résumé-writing workshops, financial literacy classes — to help them move their families to what Dean called "a more sustainable place."
The stakes at Bright Beginnings are high, and not just for the young pupils.
Said Dean, "If you interface with children who are in literally the worst circumstances and you figure out a way to mitigate that and turn them in a different trajectory, then I think it puts everyone on notice that there are no excuses why every child can't be educated."
Will you consider helping Bright Beginnings? Your tax-deductible contribution will allow the charity to reach — and teach — more children. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says "Donate."
To give by mail, make a check payable to "Bright Beginnings" and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 128 M St. NW, Suite 150, Washington, D.C. 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.