As Patsy Rodriguez reads “Goldilocks and The Three Bears” to her Head Start class at Long Early Learning Center, she is doing more than simply sharing a children’s tale.
“The word of the week is ‘culture,’” she reminds her young listeners before delving into the story, explaining that the fairy tale is an example of a “traditional tale” that ties generations together.
“This is a story your parents and grandparents heard, and one day you will be able to pass this and other traditional tales to your children,” she told her four-and five-year-old students.
Throughout the narrative Rodriguez pauses to point out various compound words and discuss the literary theme of fact verses fiction (“bears don’t talk,” she said), and she even incorporates a little bit of math by discussing size and sequencing.
To the children, however, it was an entertaining story told by their beloved teacher.
“The kids don’t realize they are learning because it’s done through play,” Rodriguez said. “Everything you do has a purpose, and the children always need to be learning something. My method of teaching centers around play. It always has and always will.”
Although her philosophy remains consistent, the early-childhood model has evolved over her nearly 40 years as an educator.
“When I first started as an assistant back in 1982, the goal was to teach basic concepts such as colors, shapes and counting,” she said. “We are now teaching children so much more in terms of literacy, math and science. The reason I have stayed for 38 years is the love I have for the children, plus the fact that our administrators believe so strongly in learning through purposeful play.”
Rodriguez’s classroom is testament to her belief in the importance of this educational model and proof that it indeed does work.
Her brightly colored room is a hub of activity, with her 20 students busy at various stations, some moving from activity to activity as the mood strikes.
Among the different areas are a Dramatic Play station set up to resemble a kitchen, where several students are pretending to cook and have set a table complete with utensils and food. Near the door is the Library Center, with a cozy child-sized couch, a foot stool and even a coat rack.
Much of the activity, however, is centered underneath a large television, where Rodriguez and a group of students are demonstrating measurements and comparisons.
“I used the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as a math lesson,” she said. “The children were taking turns measuring the numbers of blocks needed to make a bed that would fit their friend. They counted and compared who needed the most blocks and who needed the least.”
Further around the room, five-year-old Kayson is busy constructing a bridge out of blocks to reenact the story of the “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” while at the same table his friend E.J. builds a house made of brightly-colored panels to illustrate “The Three Little Pigs” story.
Brimming with energy and curiosity, Kayson said being in Rodriguez’s class is “fun” and that because of his teacher, he wants to “be a fireman so that (he) can be a community helper.”
His friend, Michael, chimes in as well.
“I want to be a policeman, and Mrs. Rodriguez helps me like school,” he said.
The enthusiasm and cleverness with which she approaches her lessons are not surprising, considering Rodriguez grew up in a home where creativity and experimentation were encouraged.
“We had a very creative childhood,” she said. “My mother encouraged a lot of pretend play and we’d play dress up, store and we’d even make things to ‘sell’ in our restaurant.”
One of five girls, Rodriguez remembers how her mother – a teacher at Bowie, College Heights and later Ortiz Elementary – would bring her students to their home and she and her sisters would often visit her classrooms.
“That was what made me want to teach,” said Rodriguez. Two of her sisters teach as well, as do several of her cousins.
Rodriguez, a graduate of McMurry University, said her mother’s emphasis on creativity during her formative years carried over into her own classroom.
“I am constantly coming up with new activities for the children and changing things around,” she said. “For our Community Helper lesson, for example, we turned the room into a doctor’s office and another time, a fire station.”
Kayson’s great grandmother, Betty Skaggs, said when she and her husband, Gene, ask their great grandson if he had a good day at school, the answer is always the same.
“He always has a good day,” she said. “Mrs. Rodriguez is there for her students and has been such a positive influence on Kayson. He loves to learn, and she encourages that.”
Rodriguez’s devotion to her kids doesn’t end in the classroom; she has been known to personally assist families who find themselves in a financial bind.
“I’ve paid bills and loaned money, if it’s for the children and their well-being,” she said. “Also, I’m always buying stuff; if I see something on sale that I think my kids will like, I get it. It gives me so much enjoyment to do that.”
These small gestures of kindness speak volumes about Rodriguez’s dedication and have allowed her to form long-term bonds with parents and guardians.
“I look forward to every school year, because it seems like I get 20 new sets of friends,” she said.
Many of those friendships continue beyond the school year and on to the next generation.
“Patsy takes every child under her wing as if they were her own,” said Katerina Sauceda, a former student of Rodriguez, whose daughter Brooklynn also graduated from Rodriguez’s class last year.
As a single parent working two jobs and attending nursing school, Sauceda said having her daughter in Rodriguez’s class “took a weight off (her) shoulders.”
“Patsy would literally give the last sock off her foot to help a child and their family, and she has such a way with kids,” she said.
Rodriguez taught Sauceda’s brother and cousins as well, and Sauceda said she and the Head Start program have been foundational for their family.
“Head Start is a place for learning that lets kids grow up a little bit,” she said. “I had a really good foundation at home, and when I got to school I adapted really well. In Patsy’s class I immediately felt safe, and from then on I looked forward to going to school.”
Her nurturing home environment, as well as her experience in Rodriguez’s class almost 20 years ago, helped shape her career path in nursing.
“I had a lot of good experiences from the beginning, which helped me want to do more, to do better and to be selfless,” she said, adding that her daughter shares many of the same traits. “Patsy teaches children to make the most of their lives and to do things with kindness. The world would be a kinder, better place with more people like Patsy in it.”
Giving Kids a Head Start in School, Life
Long Early Learning Center is home to the Abilene Independent School District’s Head Start program. A federally funded child-development program, Head Start is open to eligible children as young as three years old up to the year before they enter kindergarten. Children must meet specific criteria to be eligible, including residing in a family at or below the federal poverty level or residing in foster care.
The Head Start program not only benefits the young children it serves but their families as well, which is something to which the Skaggs family can wholeheartedly attest.
“The school is special itself, but Head Start also has programs for the children’s families,” said Betty, citing as an example the Conscious Discipline program.
“It helps parents and guardians discover new ways of thinking when it comes to discipline,” she said. “Instead of punishing a child, for example, we learn different approaches, such as breathing exercises and presenting the child with choices.”
The holistic, family-centric approach appeals to Rodriguez because it allows her to address family issues in “a loving and non-judgmental way.”
“Everyone here is in the same situation to a certain extent,” she said. “Issues at home are brought to school, so you really have to have a lot of love for these children. The program runs so well because there is mutual respect.”
Rodriguez stressed that not only are the children’s needs met, but the program seeks solutions to issues arising within the family.
And while her day may end mid-afternoon Monday through Friday, her job extends well beyond the walls of the Long Early Learning Center.
“Every classroom has a family advocate, and when we go on home visits we ask the family if there is anything they need,” she said. “For example, we have helped family members get jobs, and if there are other children in the home, the advocate will also help them.”