New Della Lamb Early Education Director focuses on strong foundations

Photos courtesy of Della Lamb.

By Abby Hoover

Della Lamb welcomed a new Early Education Director, LaTrecia Thornton, an experienced educator, in February.

The organization serves children and families who represent a variety of incomes, languages, and nationalities. Della Lamb invests in families of all kinds on their way to self-sufficiency, community integration, and school readiness. 

According to the organization, Thornton will advance Della Lamb’s efforts to establish a foundation of cognitive, social and emotional health for the children and parents in its Early Education program. 

Thornton is a lifelong resident of Kansas City, Mo. A proud graduate of the Kansas City Public School District, she is living her lifelong dream of giving back to the communities that have given so much to her.

On Thursday, December 23, Executive Director Ryan Hudnall met with the Early Education team to reflect upon their hopes for a new Early Education Director. 

“As part of our conversation, a couple of key characteristics emerged: classroom experience, passion for early education, desire to connect with teachers, and experience in working in urban school districts,” Hudnall wrote in an email to staff. “As part of our search, one candidate emerged who met all of these requirements and more. As Della Lamb reflects upon life after COVID-19, we are excited that Mrs. Thornton will lead our efforts to ensure equitable access to high-quality early education.”

Thornton started at Della Lamb in August 2021, and the Early Education Director she was hired under left after Christmas break, and since then it’s been a “whirlwind.” Thornton let Della Lamb know she was interested in the position, and her experience aligned with the position they sought to fill.

‘I just have always wanted to do this, I saw my career going this way,” Thornton said. “A few years ago I was trying to make the decision to stay in the classroom or to step up, and so I love being in the classroom so much, and so it was kind of a difficult decision, but I kind of felt like once that opportunity came up, I didn’t want to miss it.”

After her husband suffered a stroke in 2007, she needed to go back to work to provide for them and her five children. Thornton was having a difficult time settling on a new career – she previously worked as a nurse – until her mother suggested she try substitute teaching.

“I tried it and I fell in love with it, and so later on that summer – my children were going to the Upper Room summer program – one of their site counselors said, ‘Hey, they’re having a hiring fair at KCPS,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, that sounds fun.’”

She initially applied online for a role as a parent educator, and her excitement grew as the date of the hiring fair approached. But when she arrived to a room full of 200 other applicants, her confidence wavered. But, at the time Kansas City Public Schools was preparing to open its new preschool program, Thornton was initially not interested and started packing up her things to leave.

“I just so happened to see the counselor that had my kids in summer school and she said, ‘You will be great,’ and I’m like, ‘Yep, no, I’ve got five kids at home and we’ll look at anyone else’s work.’ And she literally walked me and set me in front of Gloria Hernandez and was like, ‘She would be great in preschool.’”

Thornton was hired on the spot, but wasn’t convinced she could do the job, worrying about teaching little people to cut with scissors, write and interact, it for the next two weeks. She taught at Richardson Elementary for four years as an assistant to Rita Humphrey, a veteran teacher who set her on the right track to becoming the teacher she is today.

Thornton first recognized a need when she was in nursing.

“I was working at a doctor’s office on 63rd Street and I remember a lot of young girls coming in and I was like, ‘Man, they just need someone to help them,’” Thornton said. “And then from there, fast forward a few years, there was a position that opened up in the police department at night. They were, of course, having children come in, juveniles come in, and they were being arrested and things like that. I noticed a lot of them couldn’t read.”

She remembers telling her husband – they were working with the youth at their church at the time – that the teenagers couldn’t even sign their names.

“That’s where I kind of got the desire to want to teach a little bit, but it was like elementary school children,” Thornton said. “I remember the day that I said ‘Yes, this is my calling.’ 

It was the day that one of her tiny students finally understood how to write her name.

“She was so excited, and just to see the excitement, and the realization that I helped her, like it took the whole school year to do that,” Thornton said. “I think she helped me realize that’s where I want to be. She taught me a lot that year about little people and their development and really to kind of slow down. Even though I had my own children, I guess I was just used to nurturing them, but to be able to carry that to someone else’s child, it just did something different for me.”

She still remembers some of the conversations she had with her students, which helped her realize that a solid foundation is the start of any young person’s success. 

“It kind of came full circle, seeing those needs, kind of starting with the teenagers and understanding that a lot of that foundational piece is missing,” Thornton said. “Most of the challenges that communities have is because of small pieces that they didn’t get placed into their foundation.”

Thornton felt like she wasn’t doing enough by just working with the youth in her church.  Born and raised in Kansas City, she felt there had to be something else she could do to break out of her bubble to help more of the community.

“It just sparked something in me, like I have to fight for this,” Thornton said. “I have to fight for quality education. I have to fight for equal education. I have to fight for everyone to just have their basic needs met.”

She started searching for ways to speak to people, to explain to them what that fight is like. She focused on what she believes in, her values as an educator, and how to share that with other teachers.

“That’s what I came across the whole child approach,” Thornton said. “My teaching philosophy is that in order for children to be able to learn, then all of their needs need to be met: their social emotional, their intellectual, their physical, just pouring into all of their needs and having those needs taken care of and then they’re able to learn.”

Since 2010, she’s developed her strategy and is able to share it with others, both in her classroom and across the community.

In addition to Early Childhood Education, Della Lamb focuses on refugee services, social services and other youth services.

“One thing that we hear is revitalization, and so that’s kind of what I’m standing on,” Thornton said. “I believe helping the family helps the child and helping the child helps the family, like it’s kind of a vice-versa type thing. I would love to see, here at Della, us expanding from this early childhood program to helping families that are in need and when I say that I’m thinking more things like Parent University.”

She envisions someday providing parenting classes for every stage of childhood.

“Like, ‘I know what to do with infants but they’re kind of this toddler stage thing and they’re developing their own personalities, where do I go from here?’ Or even if they have older children at home, it’s like, ‘Okay, this is my first child and this is where they’re going through and I need some assistance on how to talk to them or how to get them to open up to me,’” Thornton said.

She hopes to include options for family budgeting classes, as well.

“Sometimes, I know my husband and I had challenges like sometimes in the beginning getting our family budget together, that balance, and so having those classes we’ll be able to help the families here and just having them go out and spread what they’re learning here at Della Lamb with their family and their community.

She has seen that families don’t have that support system anymore, or if they do, people tend to keep good things to themselves.

“Get everyone to kind of have that kind of attitude, you know, ‘I am because we are,’ then it will change things that we’re seeing happening in some communities,” Thornton said.

Della Lamb’s Early Education Program has four teachers, and a student teacher who is here from South Korea.

The program currently has 23 students enrolled, in two preschool classrooms. Della Lamb also has a daycare program, serving infants through five years old, with around 25 children.

“COVID hit and we took a crash on the staff and so we’re trying to build our staff,” Thornton said. “We’re going to expand that this upcoming school year and the year after that. We’re licensed for 133 children, I believe, and so I feel that’s a personal goal for me is to expand our classroom size and number of classrooms, and then we can serve more children in the community.”

This past summer, a classroom was renovated to make room for young students. 

“It was fun to be able to open a new classroom and just come in the spirit of a new program, a new beginning,” Thornton said. “And there was just an exciting part, a little rocky in the beginning because it was like, real quick, I think we were hired two days before school.”

In the short time she’s been part of the team, Thornton has come to appreciate the Della Lamb community. Although it’s small, it feels like family to her.

“A lot of the teachers have been here for many, many years,” Thornton said. “I think one of the teachers that’s been here the longest is like 26 years, and so it was just amazing coming to an established place that just felt like family from the beginning.”

From first helping after school in her grandmother’s daycare to now being a part of the Early Childhood team at Della Lamb, Thornton is a strong, longtime advocate for Early Education, and passionate about learning, children, and Kansas City.

Due to Della Lamb’s refugee services, sometimes students come to the classroom not knowing English. The early education crew practices immersion, and Thornton is continually impressed with how quickly young children pick up English.

“We did have one little girl that was an Afghan refugee come into the classroom a little bit before Thanksgiving, and it was amazing to me because you want to think that children come in, they’re not really going to be able to understand or speak the language – and there was a language barrier as far as her communicating with us – but it was much to my surprise that she could understand what we were saying to her,” Thornton said. “She has worked really hard to get to where she is today.”

They helped her learn to express her needs, repeating sentence structures and taking it slow – something Thornton has had to learn in the classroom. Now, she speaks her first language at home, and English at school.

“It’s amazing to see how she goes in and out of both languages when she’s trying to talk,” Thornton said. “That was a joy to see, I’ve never experienced refugee students and so to see how Della Lamb just came in and grabbed the family and the services that they give to them outside of the school is amazing. The support that they have from the community, as well as from the school, is just amazing to see.”

Thornton is pursuing her Master’s Degree in Education from Northwest University. Although she’s taking a break this semester to settle into her new role, she’s determined to pick it back up in the fall.

“It’s a lot of work. I thank God that I had the classes that I had up until now because I’m really putting them into play now,” Thornton said. “I’ve got four girls and my son, of course it was difficult to finish school when they were growing up and so to finally finish and then to start the masters, it’s proving something to myself but also to them to keep trying no matter how long it takes you to do something. If you keep chipping out a little bit at a time, you’re going to reach that goal.”

Her oldest daughter will be 27 at the end of the month, and then she has a 25-year-old, 23-year-old twins, and a 21-year-old son.

“I’m just really excited to be here and have new beginnings here at Della,” Thornton said. “I am very anxious to see where this role takes me and what the end is going to be. I’m excited for the new challenges that come. I am a very much hands-on learner and so here I am. It just seems like a lot of my life unique things have come, you know, in unique ways. And this is just one of them. And so I’m very excited to serve this community.”

Thornton is familiar with the Northeast – her sister attended Northeast High School, and her aunt lived in the apartments on Missouri behind Della Lamb when she was growing up.

“I remember she would take us here and my mom worked at the Housing Authority, so it’s like that earlier life coming back,” Thornton said. “It’s exciting to give back to the community. I’ve always wanted to do that, you know, to give back to the communities that have given so much and there’s still so much in me and so it feels like it’s really happening on a grander scale now, and so I don’t take that charge lightly.”

She knows it’s delicate work ahead, building a solid foundation for the next generation.

“It just feels much different than being in the classroom,” Thornton said. “Like, that’s a big charge in itself, but now it’s huge, like everything is up to me now. But I’ve had a great start here that will help me guide my way, and so I’m just excited about where the community is going to be in five or 10 years.”

This year, Della Lamb is celebrating 125 years of serving the community. 

“We have people that have been working in this community for a long time,” Thornton said. “You don’t really have that nowadays, people tend to get what they need out of a job and then they move on. So to have people that have been here for 20 plus years, I think it just speaks for itself in the dedication that we have, our people are here to serve the community and work with the children in our area.”

Della Lamb is located in the Historic Northeast of Kansas City, which has been identified as a childcare desert by the Mid-America Regional Council.  Della Lamb is striving to provide high-quality early education to children who may not otherwise have access, and Thornton will lead efforts to enhance both accessibility to and quality of early education at Della Lamb.

“The early years of a child’s life are crucial to their long-term success in and out of the classroom,” according to Della Lamb. “As such, we deeply believe in investing in our students, our teachers, and our community. As we enter our 125th year of serving KC’s families, we are excited for Mrs. Thornton to launch a new chapter in Della Lamb’s history.”

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