Nontraditional teacher builds growing preschool program

Aug. 3, 2020

By John Hult, for SiouxFalls.Business

Corri Poore didn’t dream of being a preschool teacher, and there’s little chance the world would have expected him to become one.

He’s a man, after all, in a profession less than 3 percent male. 

Nevertheless, Poore’s life prepared him for the work he has come to love, and the reputation he has built in Sioux Falls has pushed such questions well out of the forefront.

“In our first year, it was really tough to get things going,” said Poore, the 40-year-old proprietor of Little Tykes University at 700 S. Sycamore Ave. “But then we got some great families in here that really believed in what we were doing. Honestly, for the last three years, the male issue hasn’t been a thing. It’s not something that even comes into play.” 

Poore is raising three kids of his own, but his child care training started long ago. He grew up the son of an early childhood educator in Houston, with a cousin his age and a brother nine years his junior. 

He was a hands-on older brother.

“That was my mission in the morning – get (my brother) Chris ready,” Poore said. “We lived pretty far away from the school. Dad was a postal worker, so he was already gone, and Mom was getting ready herself. So that was my job.”

His mother’s job meant he was surrounded by children as well. She taught as part of a summer program called Reading Recovery, and she’d bring her own kids along to set up bulletin boards and stack papers. She also brought them to school to read to younger students during the regular school year.

“She was big on making sure we had the right education and were part of the right element – anything to keep us busy,” he said. “During the summertime, my buddies would be outside, but she would say ‘Well, we’re going to the school today.’ ”

Guides, not teachers

Given Poore’s approach to preschool education, his early experience with youngsters has been especially useful. Students at Little Tykes aren’t separated into age groups. Poore doesn’t put on coats or shoes for children who can do the job with a little encouragement from an adult or older classmate. If they leave the fenced-in playground and head east for the cattails, they aren’t scolded.

They roam, romp and learn in an environment that values guidance over benchmarks and control. 

“We want them to see us as guides, not as teachers,” Poore said of himself and his co-teacher, Lexi Sherman. “We believe that if you put the kids in the right environment and lead them in the right direction, they will learn.”

Oddly enough, Poore hasn’t spent a ton of time thinking about how his early life helped him manage the controlled chaos of a preschool environment – he mostly just loves working with kids and wants to see them succeed. His belief that mixed-age classrooms and guided learning pay off – cornerstones of popular preschool approaches like Montessori or Reggio Emilia – wasn’t born of formal training, either.

Instead, he said, it was a matter of seeing what worked at his in-home child care business that he operated before opening the South Sycamore preschool in 2014. 

“What I learned at home was that blended age groups were a huge learning tool. The older kids are reinforcing what they were learning by teaching it to the younger kids, and the younger kids are learning from the older ones,” Poore said. “That was the reason I didn’t have a set mode for my preschool: I saw the comfort level of the kids with each other, the comfort level of the parents with the provider.”

The growth has been organic from in-home child care to preschool and now to a planned move into a larger space at 69th Street and Southeastern Avenue.

Poore moved to South Dakota in 2002, following his then-wife back to her home state after a stint in the military, where they met. 

When their eldest son, 14-year-old Orion, was just 7 months old, they weren’t pleased with their options for care. Poore’s co-workers and friends had similar concerns, so he and his wife took the leap and began to watch children in their home in 2007.

Poore continued to work a series of call center and food-service jobs but spent his off time caring for kids. After a few years juggling those jobs – all the while growing more fond of the child care work and less enamored of his work outside the home – he was “ready to go all in.”

“I was so done with call centers,” Poore joked.

Within a few years, he’d earned his childhood development associate’s certification and decided it was time to open the preschool, which uses a curriculum called experience learning that aligns with his child-guided philosophy.

Trust, support of family pay off 

Poore credits the program’s success to the support of his now-wife Hillary Turner, who has “been a driving force in all this,” as well as the families who’ve backed him – particularly in the lean, early months after opening the preschool in 2014. 

Jill Freerks’ family was among the first to arrive. She needed child care quickly because her in-home provider quit abruptly. She recalls exchanging text messages with someone named “Corri” who had a preschool near her home to set up a walk-through and being surprised when he greeted her.

“I was fully expecting to see a white woman, but then Corri opened up the door,” Freerks said. “I was like ‘OK …’ but his personality won us over right away. Plus he has boy and girl twins, like us, so we had that connection.”

Freerks has since been impressed by what her children have learned in the hands-on environment, particularly by the science knowledge her 8-year-old twins have maintained so many years later.

“They’ll still say things, and I’ll have to step back and say ‘How do you know that?’ ” she said. “They’ll usually say ‘Oh, Corri taught me that.’ ”

Elizabeth Wehner has had similar experiences with her 2-year-old, Mazi. One day, Wehner pulled out a shirt with the word “sunshine” written on it, and Mazi said, “Mommy, that’s an S.”

“I thought it was a fluke thing,” Wehner said. “But then I said, ‘What’s that letter?’ and she said, ‘That’s a U.’ She did the entire word. I knew she’d run around the house singing her ABCs, but she actually knew her letters. It’s crazy, and the only thing I can think is that she’s picking it up from the other kids.”

Unlike Freerks, Wehner had the time to obsess over choosing her daughter’s child care. She interviewed about a dozen in-home and preschool providers before deciding the guided environment fit her daughter’s personality.

The “male issue,” as Poore puts it, was actually a selling point.

“I really liked the fact that he was a guy,” Wehner said. “I wanted her to be exposed to someone who was male and could show her that guys can be kind, caring and nurturing. I wanted her to see that men can be in that role.”

Now, she said, she jokes with Poore that he and her husband are really Mazi’s two parents.

“There are times I’ll text Corri things like ‘How does she like her apples again?’ ” she said.

Second teacher expands preschool family

The addition of Sherman last year as his first long-term, full-time co-teacher has been a boon to Poore’s family-like environment as well, he said.

“I watch her with the kids now, and I know I have the right person. The question was ‘Are you going to be able to stand there with this kid who’s struggling with his shoe without putting the shoe on for the kid. Are you going to talk them through it?’ ” Poore said. “A lot of people have this feeling that if their kid is frustrated, they’re not doing something right. But frustration is a part of learning.”

Sherman is as pleased to be there as Poore and the Little Tykes families are to have her. The Delaware native followed her father to South Dakota, where her half-sister spent her entire life, about two years ago. For her first year, she worked at the Casey’s convenience store across the street. She’d sometimes see Poore in the store and think “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to be doing what you’re doing.”

“My whole life I’ve known I wanted to work with little kids, whether that be as a day care teacher, preschool teacher or whatever you’d want to call it,” said Sherman, who worked in child care centers while attending college courses in her home state. “I didn’t grow up with a big family or anything; I’ve just always had that connection with kids.”

Poore and Sherman will have more space to grow by late December, the planned move-in date for the larger location at 69th and Southeastern. Growth has been a goal, Poore said, but the philosophy of shared space and guided experience will remain.

“Even when we move to that larger space, that’s not going to change,” Poore said. “We’re all going to be together.”

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Nontraditional teacher builds growing preschool program

“We believe that if you put the kids in the right environment and lead them in the right direction, they will learn.” Meet a nontraditional preschool owner whose business is about to get bigger.

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