By Lindsay Peyton
Jacqueline Gwin spent years working as a preschool director in the private sector. “Before COVID, it was difficult,” she said. “After COVID, it was even worse.” She decided to make a career shift and find a better fit at a Christian school. In time, she would land at the helm of Bear Creek UMC School. Her journey was nothing short of a God-directed Cinderella story.
“I wanted to make a difference, not just a paycheck,” Gwin said.
She attended a conference for Christian preschools and met Toni Bejko, who was then director of the Bear Creek UMC School. The institute had been growing strong for 36 years.
When Bejko later submitted her resignation, she told Bear Creek leaders, “I wish we could find that woman I met at the conference.” She even tried to call organizers, but no one would pass on the mystery woman’s contact information.
Across town, Gwin dreamt of working at the Bear Creek UMC School. The only problem was that she could not remember its name. She interviewed at other schools, but not one stood out.
Serendipitously, Gwin finally applied at Bear Creek. Administrators were messaging back and forth during the interview, “This is the one we were looking for.”
Gwin too realized this was the school she had dreamt of joining. Still, there were several interviews to go.
The reason Bear Creek was on such a detailed search soon became clear. “The school was about to go through a large shift,” Gwin said. “They were choosing someone to lead them through a new phase.”
In 2019, Bear Creek UMC School was selected to become a Children’s Center through the Texas Annual Conference’s We Love All God’s Children initiative.
Because of COVID, however, the steps needed to prepare for the change were delayed. When Gwin was hired, she was told, “You have to be fast and furious. You’re already a year late.”
Her first day was May 17, 2021. “I hit the ground sprinting,” she said.
The first task was choosing a formal curriculum. In the past, teachers wrote their own lesson plans.
Funding $18K in scholarships
Gwin not only found a solid, research-based curriculum, but she also developed ways to access children and keep parents apprised of their progress. “It needed to be purposeful, intentional, experience-based learning,” she said.
By September, the new curriculum was already being implemented. Bear Creek also began providing financial assistance to families in need, with the help of grant funding. Last year, the school funded about $18,000 in scholarships.
Gwin’s personal goal was to help the school increase its rating from two stars in the Texas Rising Star program. “We wanted to become a four-star school,” she said.
This May, the school reached the milestone – and received the top accreditation. “It was a celebration like no other,” Gwin said. “Teachers were dancing in the hallways. We had all worked so hard.”
Faculty and staff started using a new software app to communicate with parents this school year. “We can track progress, send pictures and use it as a messaging tool,” Gwin said.
She is also proud of the new hot lunch program. Working parents often run out of time to pack healthy lunches, she said. The school wanted to eliminate that concern – and make it easier for families.
Discipleship is a main component of the We Love All God’s Children Initiative. At Bear Creek UMC School, students go to chapel each week, where the message aligns with Sunday school lessons.
“They still get the same message of love and acceptance, even if they don’t go to church on Sunday,” Gwin said. “They learn about God and what’s important.”
During school, the children hear Bible stories and learn moral lessons. They now receive their own Bibles at registration through a program that started this year.
The Bible is signed by teachers, administrator and Senior Pastor Leo Tyler at Bear Creek UMC. “We tell children, ‘The most important words in this book are that God loves you,’” Gwin said. “We tell them that over and over again. ‘You are important and special.’”
Literacy foundational to the school
Literacy is a fundamental part of We Love All God’s Children. That part, Gwin explained, was already a priority at Bear Creek UMC School. There’s a small library in each classroom, as well as three larger ones for the church campus.
Evelyn Carroll serves as Bear Creek’s Children’s Center Literacy Program Director. She started in the position in 2021. “My main job is to create, implement and rethink literacy programs,” she said.
Carroll works in conjunction with the church’s librarian to make reading accessible in the community. For instance, currently there is a summer reading program, open to the public, at the church.
The preschool takes part in all of the church’s library programs, Carroll added. “They come in – and we’re also open to the community,” she said.
Health is also a pillar of We Love All God’s Children. The TAC’S Community Health Coordinators Nicole Thomas works with the Bear Creek UMC School. She has coordinated free immunizations and flu vaccines, as well as connected children to local health resources, like neighborhood dentists.
Thomas also works with Carroll to create literacy and health events. For instance, students read a book about movement and paired it with an activity. Another time, they read about nutrition and then gathered for a healthy snack.
In addition, Thomas offers “Mindful Wednesdays” for children from the community, which include play, mindfulness, art and Bible study. “Because of the pandemic, their mental health and stress was high,” she said. “They needed something to help.”
Looking back on the past year, Gwin is often amazed at how far the school has come. “I don’t know how we got it all done – but we did,” she said. “And the school is better for it. The families are happy, and the teachers are too.”
She laughed and said the past school year was the “year of grace,” when everyone had to accommodate change and find ways to move toward their goals. Next fall will start “the year of the butterfly.”
“We’re going to come out of that year flying,” Gwin said.
Already goals include making the school safe and secure, as well as increasing diversity. “We want to perfect the things we’ve been doing this year, “ she said. “We spent the past 12 months being the best we could. Now we’re going to focus on assessment.”
In the past year, registration has increased 49 percent at the school, which serves children ages 1 year to 4.
The campus is in the midst of gaining a new playground for next year and updating its lobby. “We’re preparing our school for the next 36 years,” Gwin said.
The Bear Creek UMC School was established in 1984 as a three-day preschool and Mother’s Day Out program. Former director Maetha Smith built an educational foundation, where children could flourish spiritually, emotionally, physically, intellectually and socially, Pastor Leo Tyler said. There have been five other directors since.
Now Gwin is taking the foundation built by Maetha to the next level. “Jacqueline is so driven,” Tyler said. “We found a jewel in her.”
The pastor acknowledged the many contributions of Thomas, Carroll and Children’s Director Susie Morales. He is particularly grateful for the vision of Rev. Jill Daniel, Director of We Love All God’s Children.
“No one person could make this come together,” Tyler said. “It’s all of us coming together. It’s a collaborative effort.”
Grants made it possible
He is also grateful for the grants from Moody Permanent Endowment Fund that made We Love All God’s Children possible, as well as from Houston Methodist that established the Community Health Initiative.
Children’s Director Susie Morales explained that Bear Creek UMC first wrote a grant to become a Children’s Center in 2018. She and Tyler wanted to respond to the changing community.
Morales explained that the preschool needed to become more than a Mother’s Day Out program. “The demographics in the neighborhood had shifted, but the school wasn’t reflecting it,” she said.
Instead of stay-at-home moms, there were more working families – as well as families who often did not have the income for childcare. By partnering with the Conference and becoming a Children’s Center, Bear Creek could better serve those families.
“We had a vision – and that gave us even more direction,” Morales said.
In the past year, she has witnessed the preschool blossom. “The vision we had, it’s like there was a snowball effect,” she said. “And now churches are coming in to see what we’ve done so they can replicate it.”
Morales wants to do more to reach out to the community. “We still have a lot of work to do, but the foundation has been laid,” she said.
The preschool, she explained, is a mission of the church – and is a pathway towards discipleship. Parents from the school are also invited to the church. “They feel like they belong – and that’s important,” she said.
Currently 105 children are enrolled, with about 130 projected to register in the fall. Tyler estimates that between 85 and 90 percent do not attend the church.
Looking to the future, Tyler wants both the school and the church to become more inclusive. “The vision is for Bear Creek to be a campus where everyone is welcome, where everyone is loved unconditionally,” he said. “You’re looking at the total person.”
That also requires caring for even the youngest member – and future members, Tyler added.
Making Bear Creek UMC School accessible to families of diverse social-economic statuses is critical, the pastor said. “Our goal is to provide quality early childhood learning experiences for children of working families or those whose income makes quality education inaccessible,” he added.
Tyler is eager to share what Bear Creek has learned along the way with other churches. “That’s what I want at Bear Creek – to be that place, a mentoring campus,” he said.
Daniel is continuing to build Children’s Centers in the Conference. She said, “You have to find a way to get children reading on grade level by third grade.”
Literacy had so much power – from preventing addiction to ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Early childhood education is key,” Daniel said. “You can’t start in third grade. You have to start early on.”
Tyler shares her passion. “I think the church has to pick up the slack,” he said.
He wants to ensure student success – and keep them from starting school already behind their peers.
“Let’s stop that from happening,” he said. “Let’s make up our minds and put all of the energy we have to make our children spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally strong. We can do that – but we have to make it our top priority.”