Located in one of the most diverse quarters of Nashville, Casa Azafrán Early Learning Center offers a Pre-K program with Dr. Dalila Duarte at the helm. The school is situated within the Casa Azafrán Community Center, and inside this building, you will find 92 students, 80 in Pre-K and 12 in the 3-year-old exceptional education program that opened in January of this year. Since they are only a one-year school, the demographics change annually — up to eight languages represented in the space at one time. As principal, Dr. Dalila has dedicated herself to serving these students and their families. The school’s use of Creative Curriculum places importance on project-based learning and constructivism. Social emotional learning activities are embedded to support their development. Dr. Dalila’s radiant energy and contagious passion for her craft make Casa Azafrán Early Learning Center such a spectacular place of learning, and that’s why it is with great pleasure that we introduce Dr. Dalila and give her the chance to better explain her work as principal!
Tell us about your background.
I am originally from Chicago but have lived in Nashville for seven years now (I moved for a doctoral program at Tennessee State University) and have been at Casa Azafrán for three years. I was the first in my family to go to college and challenged myself not only to attend college, but to go out of state. I wanted to be able to answer any questions my nieces and nephews may have and let them know that regardless of your experiences, you are able to change your own journey by never losing sight of who you are and what our family represents.
Casa Azafrán Early Learning Center was established as recently as 2014. How does the center approach education and the curriculum differently than other early learning programs?
The early learning center is one of the three original early learning centers that opened in 2014; now there are four. The purpose was to build out a high-quality Pre-K program. Through our partnership with Vanderbilt University, our teachers are observed in the classroom twice a year and they assess the students at the beginning and end of the year. In this partnership, we have identified the Magic 8 classroom practices: reducing time spent in transition; improving level of instruction; creating a positive climate; increasing teacher listening to children; planning sequential activities; promoting associative and cooperative interactions; fostering high levels of involvement; and providing math opportunities. We are putting the power into the students, which allows them to take ownership of their learning. We build a base for the children to self-regulate and problem solve. Regard and awareness for student perspective is so important. It is so interesting to see their ability to use these strategies not only with a teacher, but with their peers.
How are the students’ diverse backgrounds and cultures incorporated into the learning experiences?
First and foremost, we create a sense of belonging for the entire family from the moment they touch the door. We want them to know that this is a safe space for learning and being proud of who you are. We are fortunate to have a diverse staff, and that is one of the many things I am extremely proud of. Families and students are able see a representation of themselves in the staff, and this helps build a genuine connection. For students who speak other languages, we are supporting them and challenging them to learn the language that will mobilize them in society while celebrating their native language. We are also mindful of our literature. We select books that reflect diverse backgrounds. When we introduced the exceptional ed program, we brought in dolls with special needs equipment for both the Pre-K and exceptional ed students.
One of my favorite memories is when we had a Spanish-speaking student and an Arabic-speaking student sitting together. The first student noticed that the other was upset and was asking him “why are you sad” (in Spanish). The Arabic speaker didn’t understand, and the Spanish speaker was confused why he didn’t understand. It warmed my heart to see that as a Casa Azafrán family, we are creating a learning environment where students are curious but do not see boundaries with each other.
What are three top priorities you hope to accomplish as principal of Casa Azafrán Early Learning Center?
For me, it is critical to create a space where my staff can feel happy about opening the door and walking into the building each day. They should feel valued and feel good to be here. I tell them, this is the place you spend the most time, so it is important that you walk in with your spirits up and always feel loved, cared for and valued.
Second, we have an investment in the entire family. We are able to make this a priority through the partnerships that Metro Nashville Public School (MNPS) provides. We welcome our children into the building to educate them, but we are bringing the families in as well. We want to create a sense of support and help our families through opportunities for services (medical, counseling and business) and parent workshops.
In terms of our children, the priority is in providing them a space that empowers them not only academically but also personally. This may sound deep for a 4-year-old, but it is not. We want them to know that everyone matters, but you matter so we are going to personalize our practices to empower you. On the last day of school, everyone is crying. I don’t cry because I know that I will see the students again. We have invested so much, and I know we are going to see them again.
What is the greatest challenge in your job?
The balancing of the time. I want to be in the classrooms and with the children but have to find the balance in being with them and supporting the other demands of serving the families and staff. It is a challenge to wear many hats and not lose sight of the teachers and children.
What is the greatest reward?
It fills my heart how many families are interested in Casa Azafrán from word of mouth. It means we are doing something right in creating a space for families. I get the most joy when we see families return, whether they are coming to visit or bringing the next sibling to our school; seeing the teachers get deep in the magic of tapping into a child’s curiosity; and seeing the children take pride in what they do.
We are working to be a unique, innovative hub and are able to share our work with the rest of the MNPS family. For the most part, schools are implementing Creative Curriculum because of the work we are doing across MNPS early learning centers. We are challenged not only to carry the work of a high-quality Pre-K, but also to be creative in our approach. We are pushing little by little to impact others in the district, and that is exciting work. It reminds me that we have a high level of commitment to families, staff and children but also to the district.
Where can we find you when you aren’t working?
Taking a local boxing class; getting out to Metro Parks and Greenways; and just enjoying time with friends or flying back home to see family. It may look like work, but I love being involved in community events and volunteering.
What is an important piece of advice you have been given?
“Blessed are the flexible for they are less likely to get bent out of shape.” My professor, Dr. Milton, gave me this advice. It’s not worth getting all worked up, because we are going to get through this one thing at a time.
What books are on your bedside table?
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Upholding a positive spirit, cozy sheets and bedding and trips back home.
Thank you to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos of Dr. Dalila!
Our newest FACE of TriStar, Kristin Zbozien, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 32 years old — and while 25 weeks pregnant. She was proactive in her treatment, and today, she — and her daughter — are healthy! CLICK HERE to read her brave story.