Tucked inside the 5 Corners Improvement District on West Fuqua Street near Buffalo Speedway, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Early Childhood Center has provided learning, based on “structured play,” to thousands of Houston pre-kindergarten students for the last 17 years.

The center, a part of the Houston Independent School District, was founded in 2004 and is among just a handful of HISD education centers that cater exclusively to educating pre-K students in Houston. 

Early childhood education has been found to be integral to helping people to prepare for and succeed in today’s increasingly global economy. Early education is also crucial because it ultimately leads to brighter futures for children living in low-income communities. 

Michelle Thomas

“We bring socialization to the table,” says MLK Early Childhood Center Principal Michelle Thomas. “We also bring a love of learning. Our play inspires children to want to learn more and they develop a passion for knowledge that will last for a lifetime.” 

Thomas adds that “students who participate in (early childhood education centers) perform better when they get to a K-5 elementary school.”  

The vision for the MLK Center was to create a place where teachers would innovate with hands-on learning, free of worksheet assignments. The first principal, Gabrielle Coleman, started by training teachers on how to provide instruction through play and “playing with a purpose.” The experiences that teachers create at the center have helped thousands of students over the years to become better readers, writers, scientists and artists, starting their careers on solid footing.

“Through Ms. Coleman’s vision, MLK’s teachers are masters at providing play that is well planned, purposeful, strategic, and focused,” says Thomas, who also previously taught at the MLK Center.

For this school year, 328 students are enrolled at MLK. The center has four bilingual classrooms for students whose dominant language is Spanish and 10 classrooms for students who speak English. It also has a Preschoolers Acquiring Learning Skills class for students who have special needs.

All students at the center participate in a selection of ancillary classes during the week, including library, physical education, and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) class. New this year is a Fine Arts Club where students participate in choir, different forms of fine art, drama and music, including learning how to play recorders.

For the 5 Corners area, the MLK Center brings multiple benefits. Children receive an enriching full-day experience that prepares them well for kindergarten and beyond, while working parents in the community benefit from the convenience of having a high-quality, tuition-free educational offering right in their neighborhood. 

All students there this year are classified as members of economically disadvantaged households.

To qualify for enrollment, students must be 3 or 4 years old by Sept. 1 of the school year and must be zoned to any HISD school.

“We provide a positive environment that nurtures and promotes each child’s love of learning,” Thomas says. “Children who attend our center leave with improved social skills that will project them forward in their next grade level.”

Kids graduate with skills that include better attention spans, how to accept the word “no,” how to get a teacher’s attention, better problem-solving, and how to accept feedback from others. Data reveal that students who graduate from the center leave ready for kindergarten, Thomas says.

“It’s important that families understand that enrolling your child in an early childhood center will be giving your child a running start in education,” says Thomas. “It’s an investment in your child’s future.”

Call the school at 713-797-7900 for more information.

— by Deborah Lynn Blumberg