When long-time friends Tina Locke and Janet Chapman opened Step Forward Day School in 2003, they were both newly single mothers who needed a way to support their children, and someplace safe for their kids to be when they were at work. Then God stepped into the picture. And all the pieces started falling into place.
On December 13, 2002, they took possession of their building from a previous daycare that had closed. An eager landlord allowed them to sublease. The building had been totally stripped of everything. So, they had nothing. But, when they opened their doors on January 7, 2003, the building was freshly painted, had a playground, had classrooms, and a full group of teachers.
The church daycare that Locke had been the director of for a number of years decided to close when she announced she was leaving to start her own school, and they passed all their supplies, teachers and children on to Step Forward. Parents and teachers from the church, as well as their own children, helped Locke and Chapman paint, transfer the playground, mulch, put in carpets and furniture, and put in landscaping.
“It was a series of miracles,” said Chapman. “We didn’t get a whole lot of sleep in those two plus weeks. The only day we were out of the building was Christmas Day, but we got it all done.”
“It had been a dream of mine since college in the 1970s,” said Locke. She has a degree in Christian education.
Retirement’s a Hard Decision
Love for children and teaching radiates off the two women. Deciding to sell the business was hard, but they are both 67 and they know it is time to pass the reins on to the new owners. Leaving is bittersweet. They both admit there have been many tears.
“We are staying until the end of the year,” explained Locke. She is teaching a class and wants to finish out the year with the kids. And Chapman is training the new owners on the logistics of running the school.
“The company that we sold to is going to keep things the same,” said Chapman, “including the name.”
A Solid Team for 20 Years
The two women are perfect complements to each other. Locke laughingly calls herself “the dreamer” and Chapman “the doer.” Locke, having both the experience and the educational background to run the curriculum focused her energy there, while Chapman has done all of the administration and “manages the checkbook.” The school was run according to rules and policies that they both set down, but Chapman made sure they were followed.
“I believe that if you have a set of rules,” said Chapman, “you follow them. And rules are for one and all. Unless there is some extenuating circumstance.”
Taking a Different Approach to Daycare
One of the reasons that Locke decided to leave her post at the church school was that she had a vision of what kind of pre-school she wanted to run, and it was not like anything out there at the time they started. Mother’s Day Out programs are set up for parents, noted Locke, and daycares are more about keeping children busy and entertained. They became the only 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. pre-school in the community when they began, with options for kids to be there two, three or five days a week.
“We wanted to do what is best for the kids,” explained Locke. “We want them to go to the “top of the heap” when they enter kindergarten, but we want the kids to think they are just playing. But their time with us is really spent wisely, teaching them skills to take to kindergarten with them.”
“My daughters both attend Step Forward,” said Lacy Ezell, a former Step Forward parent, “and it has been wonderful for our family… [Step Forward] has been such a staple in our community, sending well prepared children into the Williamson County school system. Janet and Tina are fabulous, selfless educators and business owners!”
“I will never forget touring [the] school,” Kimberly Hubbard told Locke and Chapman, “and talking with you about [my son] and reading and getting him to that next step. You told me you could “teach a monkey to read” (yes, that’s a quote) and talked [about] your phonics approach. It is so desperately what he needed. And when [our daughter] came around, you and that school were exactly what she needed. As it turned out, you and that school were exactly what I needed as a parent, too…We are so thankful both of our babies got to learn from you and for the environment you fostered. I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else.”
Success Thanks to Their Family, Personal and School
The biggest thing for Locke and Chapman was that they started from nothing and have done well, not to say they haven’t had challenges. Of course, the biggest challenge was the pandemic, but the pair say that thanks to their parents and talented teachers that they made it through.
“We are kind of like a family,” said Chapman.
In recent years, they have become like mothers to many of the young mothers who bring their children to them because their own mothers are far away in another state. The ladies are there to offer suggestions and guidance about anything dealing with raising and teaching kids. They are also proud to have been able to offer scholarships when needed, like when relatives of some of their families came to Franklin from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina with little more than the clothes on their back.
It is their giving nature that makes parents want to help whenever they can. Parents often arrange their schedules so they can help out at the school with everything from reading to helping kids learn how to make biscuits.
“It’s been a fun ride,” added Locke.
Step Forward Day School is located at 226 Bedford Way in Franklin, TN.