CONCORD — The Mary Frances Wall Center, named after Cabarrus County’s first kindergarten teacher, provides schooling and services for hundreds of preschool-age children throughout the county.
For the past 10 years, the building that hosts special-needs children and children of Cabarrus County Schools employees has been located off the busy Highway 601 in Concord.
The school offers unmatched services within the community, qualified and specialized staffers and the responsibility of identifying children with suspected disabilities.
More than half of the teachers have earned master’s degrees in their field.
“What this program is about is really offering children in Cabarrus County who have special needs, and our school system employees’ children, an environment that is safe and warm and encouraging,” said Trina Wenzel, Mary Frances Wall Center preschool director.
While every school district in the state is mandated to provide exceptional children’s services for children with special needs, the Mary Frances Wall Center is the only preschool program owned and operated by a local school system that offers a full-day service program for children with and without disabilities that is housed at a stand-alone site.
The Mary Frances Wall Center, like other school districts throughout the state, operates classrooms at local elementary school for the hours of the school day.
Wenzel, who has been working in the early-childhood field for more than 30 years, says the earlier children are screened, evaluated and assisted, the better.
That’s the main objective with the Mary Frances Wall Center.
“This is the most important time. We learn half of what we know the first seven years of our life,” Wenzel said. “We know that we are sending brain patterns for years to come. We want that to be positive in a way we know they are going to take the skills with them.”
Major needs at Mary Frances Wall CenterThe Mary Frances Wall Center is a big attribute in the community, serving children with disabilities at no cost.
However, the program has dire needs, an issue that could be assisted with extra funds.
School officials say the resource for the funding is minimal and not a high priority at the federal and state levels, so the majority of the money comes from the county level.
“Services get really tight when the money doesn’t grow as the economy, teacher raises, salaries, which everybody needs, and inflation grows,” Wenzel said.
Federally, the government does not provide preschools with money for anything other than services, which include staffers such as speech therapists, occupational therapists, special-education teachers, physical therapists, and nurses.
The Mary Frances Wall Center needs the resources to keep up with the continuous growth of new students entering its program.
“For me, it’s to be able to maintain and just keep up with the needs of so many children,” Wenzel said. “If you live in this county, you know the growth that’s happening in this county. I hope that we can continue to offer the level of service that we have for the numbers that just keep growing.”
School officials say federal funds don’t provide for transportation, technology, building and utility costs, maintenance repairs, or even renovations and replacements. Meals for the children are often provided by nearby A.T. Allen Elementary School.
Outside the facility is an outdated play area for children, surrounded by a row of metal fence.
“The federal dollars have got to change,” Wenzel said.
“You can’t continue to mandate that school districts do this and that and there are no funds. It’s our great unfunded mandate. Unfortunately, we have to live with that.”
Much of the only major funding the Mary Frances Wall Center receives is issued through the county’s Capital Plan.
School officials said some of the changes needed are, if not renovations to the school, relocation to another facility and away from the congested traffic on Highway 601. Also, a larger parking lot to facilitate the flow in and out of the school is needed.
“I don’t even think about a building or site. I really just think, I want us to be able to maintain the level of service and support that we have,” Wenzel said.
According to Tim Lowder, executive director of operations for Cabarrus County Schools, older elementary schools need to be renovated or replaced, and part of the Capital Plan was to replace R. Brown McAllister Elementary School and then renovate the existing building to meet the Mary Frances Wall needs.
“There are a lot of needs,” Lowder said. “They are trying to make sure we stay on schedule. We try to provide them with the five- to 10-year outlook to tell them what we need and see if they can fund it.”
Whom Mary Frances Wall Center servesThe Mary Frances Wall Center has a capacity of 300 children in the all-day school, although many other children are served there an hour or two per day.
Still, Wenzel said, parents bring their newly turned 3-year-olds to the school every day. The program is operational for children with special needs, determined by criteria set by the state, between the ages of 3 until the year before they attend kindergarten.
The five-star development day child care center has licensed physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, nurses and other highly-trained professionals on staff.
There are 19 classrooms at the Mary Frances Wall Center, and there are nearly 40 teachers who stay at the school, as well as evaluate children throughout Cabarrus County.
The center sends staffers to homes and other day cares to provide screenings and evaluations.
The Mary Frances Wall Center serves a number of tuition-based children from Cabarrus County Schools, along with special-needs children through the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten program, which is designed to provide high-quality educational experiences to enhance school readiness for eligible 3- and 4-year-old children.
According to the NC Pre-K program, it focuses on approaches to play and learning; emotional and social development; health and physical development; language development and communication; and cognitive development.
That program is a state-funded one that is income-based, or based on financial needs of the child and families.
“If a child has an identified or suspected disability, school systems are responsible for providing screenings, evaluations and services for any child beginning at age 3,” Wenzel said.
As soon as a child in Cabarrus County turns 3, and parents or pediatricians suspect a disability, the Mary Frances Wall Center provides community screenings.
“We work with doctor’s offices, different agencies, families and anybody who has a concern about their child’s development,” Wenzel said. “They call, they have a concern, and then we move into action to screen, evaluate and determine if the child qualifies for educational services.”
‘The majority of our classrooms are inclusion classrooms’The Mary Frances Wall Center purposely combines children without disabilities, who are kin to Cabarrus County Schools employees, with children who have special needs.
The goal is to teach the children how to make friends, learn from one another and how to function in a group.
“The majority of our classrooms are inclusion classrooms where we have children without disabilities and children with disabilities in the same classroom,” Wenzel said. “The real purpose behind our intent, having our tuition children here, and those children have such wonderful language, and they have a lot of vocabulary. Our children who are struggling, they have those kids as friends.”
The Mary Frances Wall Center provides joy and events for the children from all special-needs disabilities.
Twice a year, the children participate in a “Characters Parade,” in which they dress up as their favorite characters. Then, each May, the children participate in their own “Young Athletes Special Olympics.”
“It’s important for these kids to have a place they can come to and feel safe and get the services they need,” Lowder said. “Most people don’t realize, for probably 60 percent of these kids, this is the best place they will be all day. When they leave here, they go to conditions we don’t even imagine sometimes. They come here and they are loved, taken care of, they are safe and they are fed.”