Fifty-six-year-old Cheryl Howard has what some might call grit…actually, a whole lot of it! That’s what kept her on the job as executive director of the historic Nora Stewart Early Learning Center near downtown Columbia when she wanted to turn and walk away before she’d even finished her first day. That was nearly 10 years ago.
“I came on Oct. 23, 2006, and they had had no director for two years, and it was being run by the teachers and the board. I didn’t know they were in the red and on the verge of closing down,” Howard laments. “There were only two desks, a manual typewriter, no computers and no organization. I cried.” She had recently left a job as director of the American Cancer Society where she had access to big funding for golf outings and other fundraisers. “I had zero dollars to start out with here.”
She asked her husband, Duvalle Howard, a retired accountant, for advice and without a moment’s hesitation, he encouraged her to stick it out. “It was the place she had attended as a child and an important part of the community. I could see by the way she was with her own kids that she could really make a difference. I encouraged her to put one foot in front of the other,” he says. “To eat the elephant one bite at a time!”
During that first year, “one bite at a time” meant going in to work at seven every morning and not getting home until 11 most nights. Early on, Howard was on mission to bring the Nora Stewart Early Learning Center back to a place of excellence. “After getting in here, I thought, ‘What am I going to do? This place needs a lot of work!’ I knew right off, I had to work hard,” she explains.
Back then, some of the center’s veteran teachers didn’t even have high school diplomas, and she insisted that they have at least a basic high school education and be willing to take courses beyond that. “There were people who had no education making $15 to $20 an hour to basically babysit,” she remembers. “There were also some good teachers,” she adds, “but a few had to be weeded out and I was criticized because I had to let some teachers go.” She also made sure parents understood that Nora Stewart was not some sort of “drop-in” center. Kids had to arrive by 9.30 a.m. unless you had a doctor’s appointment. “Some think they can drop them off at 10.30 or 11 a.m. and they’ll miss most of the educational activities.” Her goal has always been to prepare preschoolers to thrive in the Columbia Public School system and staffing the center with uneducated teachers and having kids miss half the day would never accomplish that goal.
Mable Grimes, retired University of Missouri professor and Nora Stewart board president, knew first-hand the problems Howard inherited when she took over as executive director. “At one time, they tried to get me to be the interim director,” Grimes says. “I went on a tour of the building and said, ‘Oooh nooo! I don’t think I can take this on’” after seeing all the disrepair and lack of organization. Grimes has been on the board for nearly 14 years and loves the center’s mission of preparing kids to thrive in the public school system. Grimes believes Nora Stewart plays a crucial role in catering to parents who have difficulty with finances but still need child care. Tuition is determined by a sliding scale schedule based on parents’ income.
As executive director, Howard’s list of responsibilities is long. She explains her position as, “human resources, fundraiser, disciplinarian, teacher, maintenance, nurse, mother, grandmother and… somewhat of a politician!” Her office bears witness to all those roles as several Raggedy Ann dolls are perched atop bookshelves and stacks of workbooks, manuals and office supplies are stacked on the floor throughout the room. It’s obvious that whoever works in that room works hard!
Cheryl Howard’s years of tenacity and grit have obviously paid off. Today, there are 48 children enrolled and you’ll find renovations and upgrades from the roof down in just about every corner of the building. Renovations even include the newest addition, an Infant Center for babies not ready for the Learning Center. Through a grant from the Community Children’s Fund, they were able to hire two case managers to make referrals for other services and to better communicate between Nora Stewart and Columbia Public Schools.
But what most excites Howard is the quality of the teachers they’ve been able to attract. “Our teachers have at least a two-year AA degree or nine hours of college work under their belts. Some have four-year degrees and one with a master’s degree,” she boasts. Children learn from a high-tech Smart Board and use the same curriculum as Columbia Public Schools, emphasizing reading, math and other critical skills. Howard recently earned a master’s degree in education and counseling from Stephen’s College to further bolster the learning center’s credibility as a place where academic excellence is a given.
The one thing they’ve not changed, though, is the original milk machine that’s still serviced by Central Dairy. It stands as a reminder of their historic beginnings. Their website proclaims, “A Proud Past. A Dynamic Future.” And Nora Stewart’s history seems to bears that out.
The center opened on Park Avenue in 1933 and was called the Negro Nursery School, the first and only preschool for African American children in Columbia. There were only 16 kids on that first day. Now there are 48 children enrolled and when you glance around the classroom, you see what Howard calls a “rainbow”: kids from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, South America and from the neighborhood around Nora Stewart!
Poised on the corner of Fifth and Ash Streets across from the post office, it’s at the intersection of Columbia’s inner city and the downtown business district. Their location allows them to cater to mid-town families and the children of university employees and students.
While growing up in Columbia, Howard never imagined playing the lead role at the same preschool where she attended as a child. She still remembers the preschool’s Tom Thumb weddings and says it was a “really big deal being a Black child getting some sort of education before entering public school,” she says.
She grew up on Worley Street when it was “real quiet and safe,” and remembers the milkman delivering milk to her neighbors during her Ridgeway Elementary and Jeff Jr. High School days. “That was before the ‘No Child Left Behind Laws,’” she recalls. “We were pushed through whether you learned or not,” she says. But Howard wanted oh-so-much-more than just getting pushed through. She wanted an education! “I really didn’t start a study habit until high school, but I got pregnant my junior year and had my daughter my senior year.” At her grandmother’s insistence, she returned to school just one week after giving birth. Her grandparents were her main safety net and her parents helped out as much as they could because her child’s father was not supportive. “I had to go through the system to get child support, and it took years to get it,” she laments. “At that time, the [child support] law was not enforced and I only received money here and there.”
She remembers feeling like a big disappointment to her family. “It’s no big deal now, but when I had my first child, it was a very big deal to have a baby while you were still single and in high school,” she explains. Her grandmother warned, “Make one mistake, but don’t make a second one. Pick your pants up and move forward!” And that’s exactly what she did.
She moved to St. Louis after graduating from high school to pursue a modeling career and later went to Chicago to try out for the now-defunct Ebony Fashion Fair, an international traveling fashion show produced by Ebony Magazine publishers. She was accepted to travel with them and model, but she declined their offer after conferring with her mother and grandmother. “They asked me to consider going to college first, but I explained that I had no money to go to college.” Plus, she had a young child to take care of.
“With much encouragement, I decided their plan was in the best interest for me and my child,” she recalls. “My grandparents offered to help pay for school and they also helped with finances for a car and an apartment, so I enrolled in Stephens College.” She began as a business administration major “trying to prove something to my family,” but that was not what she really wanted to do and switched to sociology.
For Howard, the transition to college life was not an easy one, and she found herself wondering, “Do I continue hanging out with local friends or do I accept new friends that will help me pursue my career?” With “new friends,” she stayed on track and graduated from Stephens College in 1982 and immediately moved to New York City to live with Fay Spadaro, her stockbroker cousin. “I had always looked up to her and I felt like I was a part of ‘The Jeffersons!’ Our apartment had a door man and we were living the life!”
“While she was here, she had nothing to be concerned with,” Spadaro remembers. “But she didn’t stay very long because she couldn’t be independent right out of college without a work history. She could have lived in Brooklyn or Queens, but I never went over there and couldn’t tell her about that.”
Her time in the Big Apple was short-lived because her cousin was engaged and would soon marry. Howard realized she had to move on. “I had to survive on my own because my cousin was getting her family life together, and the only work I could find was with temp agencies.” Back then, she remembers that rent for a small apartment in New York City cost about $2,000 a month – way too expensive for a single mother raising a child alone.
“That’s when I decided to move back to Columbia,” even though she found it “boring after living in New York.” After returning to the Midwest, she hopscotched between several different jobs. She worked for an insurance company and was even a juvenile detention officer for a season until a teen boy got violent with her and she decided that working with delinquent teens was not her forte.
If you ask school parent, Jessica Duhring, if leading Nora Stewart is Howard’s forte, she gushes with affirmations about the school. “I researched all the early learning centers and every time I walk into that center the kids are under control doing educational stuff. It’s a great learning atmosphere,” Duhring says. She’d want her two kids there “even if they had to be on a waiting list!”
Duhring, a busy independent sales and marketing rep, needs the assurance that her children are always safe while she’s at work and also loves being able to make impromptu visits to the school from time to time. “I need to know that the school is on lockdown and they’re well taken care of because I don’t have any family here. I have good peace of mind about my kids being there.” For her, Nora Stewart makes her job as parent easier. “When I’m at home and finished with dinner, I don’t have to tell them to take out their trash or put their dishes in the sink, that we keep our hands to ourselves or that we need to use our inside voices… that’s all ingrained in their heads at Nora Stewart!”
Both of Duhring’s children began in the center’s “Baby Room,” and her five-year-old recently graduated and is now ready for kindergarten. “Miss Howard does so much for that school… it’s the only early learning center in Columbia with a Smart Board so the kids already have what others don’t get until kindergarten,” she boasts.
“Some parents could opt out and take their kids to [a franchised early learning center],” Howard explains, “but once they see our curriculum and learn that the transition from here to public school is good, they want their kids here. We’ve had parents leave angry and pull their kids out, only to later return because of the cost and the way kids are treated here.”
Aside from all the head-to-toe upgrades and renovations, grants and strong partnerships with Minority Men’s Network, Kiwanis and United Way, what Howard brings to Nora Stewart is not all that easy to put into words. “It’s show and tell all the way,” she says of their method of churning out kids who thrive in the public schools system. “For the little girls, I tell them ‘Always be a little girl that blossoms up into a fabulous woman.’ Little girls should be able to look up to you,” she admits. “They watch carefully how I dress, my nails.” (Today her nails are Easter-egg purple). “And to the boys I say, ‘What’s your plan today?’” And because they’re Nora Stewart’s boys, she’s confident they’ll have one.