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Strategies for Children with Amy O’Leary

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Strategies for Children Executive Director Amy O’Leary delves into the pandemic experiences of parents, guardians, and children, and the need to fairly compensate early education and care workers.


Joshua Croke (00:01):

Hello Worcester and the world, this is your host, Joshua Croke with Public Hearing our podcast and radio show about cities, engaging community, and materializing equitable just, and joy-filled futures. We're back with new episodes and on the second episode of our serial-style mini-season about early childhood education. Last week, we talked to Kim Davenport from Edward Street to get introduced to conversations being had in the early childhood space. As a quick reminder, early childhood means work supporting kids around zero to eight years old. These years are crucial developmental years in young people's lives. We're diving deeper into early childhood education today with Amy O'Leary the Executive Director of Strategies for Children and advocacy and policy organization that works to ensure that Massachusetts invests the resources needed for all children from birth to age five, to access high-quality early education programs. This is the Public Hearing podcast. Public Hearing is available wherever you listen to podcasts and on WICN 90.5 FM on Wednesdays at 6:00 PM, Worcester's only NPR affiliate station. Welcome Amy, It's so nice to have you on the show. I always like to provide space for our guests to introduce themselves so they can highlight any experiences or affiliations that you want to bring into this space that might not always get covered in a bio. So what else can you share about yourself and your work with our listeners?

Amy O'Leary (01:31):

Well, it's so great to be with you, Josh. Thank you so much for this opportunity. And most importantly, for covering these important issues. I am Amy O'Leary. I started my career as a preschool teacher in the South End of Boston, and I wondered how hard it could be to be a director because it looked pretty easy to me as a teacher. I soon like many early educators was promoted to be a director. When I was young, I was 26 and suddenly in charge of a program. And I learned so much as a preschool teacher and director. And now as an advocate, it's really important to me that we highlight and think about the voice of people who are doing this work every day. I'm also a huge sports fan and just had the opportunity to drive around and see Polar Park here in Worcester. And I also have been adjunct faculty at Quinsigamond Community College. So it's been a great opportunity for me to stay connected to people who are doing this work and to think about my role as an influencer of policy and how to make sure those voices are represented.

Joshua Croke (02:34):

Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for being here and a quick plug for Public Hearing before we get into questions. If you are listening and are someone passionate about a particular topic that you'd feel would make a great mini-season for our show, please reach out. We've developed this mini-season on early childhood education with Kim Davenport from Edward Street. So thank you, Kim, for proposing this important topic and helping us develop some of the questions that we're asking. And Amy, Kim said, you are the person to talk to about what our Commonwealth needs to put in place, to rebuild and amplify and evolve the early education and care system. So to jump right into that, why is it so difficult to get traction and investment for early education?

Amy O'Leary (03:19):

So I think part of the reason is we, as a society have really believed that caring for young children is typically a family responsibility. We have made a collective agreement that when children start kindergarten, we all should support and invest in that. We often hear that public school is free and we know that's not true that we all are paying for it. But when we look toward earlier ages, the legacy of parents trying to figure it on their own has been very strong. When the brain development research came out and really showed us without a doubt, how many synapses are being formed in our brains, how babies are not a blank slate. We thought that maybe that would be the opportunity where we as a society change the way we think about funding. And it really, it wasn't enough. I think there's indisputable research to show how important these early years are, but it's been a challenge to come up with policy solutions that match the needs that we see children and families having.

Amy O'Leary (04:18):

And I think what we've been talking about through the pandemic is that early childhood education was seen. We saw babies, joining Zoom calls for work. We saw mostly mothers having on blazers while they had their pajama pants underneath with a baby sitting next to them in a high chair. And suddenly it didn't matter what your income was that everybody was struggling to figure out how they were going to support, not just parents working, but how to support young children's development. We saw a surge in parents being much more concerned and interested about the milestones that their children were hitting about, whether they were having opportunities for socialization. So all of the arguments that we had been using to make the case for the investment really became visible over the past two years.

Joshua Croke (05:06):

And it's interesting. One of the things that Kim brought up was the kind of arbitrary nature of when we decided to publicly fund support for young people for education. And why weren't those, you know, early zero to eight, zero to five years really considered in the context of providing opportunities? And as we, as a show, Public Hearing specifically highlight issues of equity. This is a huge piece as well, right? And so not only is it inaccessible for a lot of families to access early education and care but also the folx who are workers in that space are, I think Kim said that about 30% are making poverty-level wages and are reliant on state-assisted supports. What needs to change? And what are some of the things that are going on maybe in your work or, you know, in the state or nationwide context that are furthering the visibility of these needs?

Amy O'Leary (06:13):

So first, what we know is the funding model has been essentially broken from the beginning. Most of our public dollars were designed to support parents who were going back to work. We have asked these same dollars to build high-quality systems, to compensate educators, to provide quality. And unlike the K to 12 system, early education is really parent to provider connection. So in Massachusetts, we have over 8,000 licensed providers, which can be hard to get information out and organize. And it's some are small businesses, some are for-profits. So this rich mixed delivery system has been seen as a deficit rather than the asset that it really is to really meet families' needs for their young children. I think what we've also seen is, as people have figured out the connection between early education in the economy, people panicked in the beginning and we heard a lot of talk about supporting the workforce.

Amy O'Leary (07:09):

Our biggest worry as advocates is that we will somehow go back to normal and forget about the people who stepped up, who kept early education and care programs open so they could support first responders. We know the statistic is that 37% of early educators were eligible for some form of public assistance. What we have seen in Massachusetts is a real focus on the real numbers. As early educators, we are nurturing people which sometimes can be our biggest challenge in advocating for ourselves. We've seen policymakers really try to understand the complexities of our system and most importantly develop solutions that are based on the knowledge that people have, who are running programs, who are seeing children. We've seen local elected officials, mayor's, superintendents, the state legislature. And now we know where there's an exciting federal proposal, which could be our largest historic investment in this work. So right now we are at a critical moment and we can't go back to the way things are. We can't call early education essential when we're in the middle of a pandemic and then go back to the way things were before.

Joshua Croke (08:18):

And I think, you know, there are some themes there that link to some of the other things that we've talked about on this show, which were again, exposed through the pandemic, but a lot of these have been longstanding or existing inequities that people have faced that the pandemic exacerbated or made more people begin to experience. And, you know, we had the conversation with a guest last season, we were talking about access to the internet in the home, right? And the inaccessibility of having access to wireless internet, or even just, you know, municipal broadband or broadband access. And so now there's this conversation about, we need to look at the internet as a public utility, right? That's something that people deserve the right to access because of how it opens up your opportunities. As you know, people, either students accessing Zoom to get on their classes or parents calling into work, or even finding and looking for job opportunities. So what are some of the things that early education enables for young people with access to high-quality education?

Amy O'Leary (09:30):

The way you frame that because we want to start thinking about this as a public good. It is a public good, you know, employers report as their employees are trying to figure out their home life situation. So we know that it helps employers to have high-quality employees who are ready to go to work. If they know their young child is somewhere that is safe and doing good things for that young child. We also know that the development doesn't start at five years old. In fact, most of our brains are developed before we get to kindergarten. So really having these high-quality learning experiences help the children, all of the long-term benefits are shown in long-term longitudinal studies, you know, more likely to have health insurance, more likely to be employed. And we know around the equity question of this has been a field that we have asked parents to figure out on their own.

Amy O'Leary (10:22):

So wherever you are in the income spectrum, you should not be paying $20,000 for your infant to be in childcare. Most people cannot afford that. You think about young parents, they're really at the beginning of their earning potential. So it's a critical time to support families to really these policy decisions can really set the foundation for success. One of the pieces we also did during the pandemic and after the murder of George Floyd was we did create a collective statement on racial justice as advocates. So as we advocate for policies, how are we making sure that equity is at the center of them? And that just doesn't mean income. And it doesn't mean just gender because we do know that women have been impacted more greatly, but we also know, as our economy, as our Commonwealth, each of us depends on a high-quality early education, even if we don't have a child or even if we aren't an employer, I live in Brookline. And as I watched The T go by, you know, basically, there's not many people still riding it, never once said, be questioned would The T keep running. You know, we don't pay for The T by everyone just paying their fair and getting on. We have supported public transportation. We need to think about that for early education as well.

Joshua Croke (11:38):

And so one of the things that come forward with this conversation for me, and thank you for bringing racial justice into the context of this as well, because it's such a critical issue and something that we really try and bring a focus and attention to for this show, because we see, you know, racial and ethnic inequities in a lot of our education data. And I'm assuming that, you know, and I know I am more familiar with our like high school age and middle school-aged students data around that, but I'm, I'm sure that inequities extend to the early education space. What does the landscape of, I guess, educating the educators look like in the context of racial justice because I know that there are critical challenges that we are facing in our classrooms and in our learning environments because we have not created a curriculum that truly represent and support educators or those becoming educators learning around inequity racial justice and how that manifests in the classroom, whether that's, you know, implicit bias playing a role or more forward racial justice issues. So in the context of that, how are we preparing the next generation of early educator workers?

Amy O'Leary (13:14):

One of the issues we raised in our statement was that we cannot perpetuate low income and poverty wages for people who are doing this work mostly brown and black women. So saying these words out loud and using the data to show it about what the average salaries are about how hard these people are working and how higher-ed plays a critical role in this. We have seen higher-ed respond. We have seen them work to remove barriers, but we have a way to go at Massachusetts. One of the outcomes we've been thinking about for decades is third-grade reading. And what we know is while the 10th-grade scores appear to be going up, third-grade reading has stayed stagnant in Massachusetts. And in talking to leaders, it's not that the third graders are suddenly are doing better in 10th grade, we have lost third graders because they have dropped out of school.

Amy O'Leary (14:04):

So really using this as a benchmark, it's the first statewide data we have of young children. We have encouraged our state to think about how we're collecting data. How are we measuring success? What are the developmental milestones that we need to look at? And then how do we support that? Is it teacher training? Is it encouraging teachers to work in teams to have master teachers to understand the curriculum? What we have also seen in our field is the legacy of the women who started doing this work, who were not organized, who liked children and potentially had a partner that was the breadwinner of the family. So they were able to kind of take on this work. We have seen that completely flip and our early educators are, it is brain science. It is rocket science to think about how you're supporting the brain development and learning of these children.

Amy O'Leary (14:58):

We know that every part of the educational agenda gets easier if children are better prepared going in. And that means social skills, language skills, we know that there is implicit bias. And where we talk about at the most in early ed is around split suspensions and expulsions of mostly black boys. There has been research done by Walter Gilliam around the implicit bias that we all bring, but how detrimental that can be as early educators. So I think it's something that we have to become more aware of and work to improve our own practice. And then think about what that looks like for a child. We also know that early educators have a unique opportunity to make the strong, positive connection with families around their child's development. We hear often have stories of parents feeling not as included as their children get older. So how do we work as partners with parents around developmental milestones, but also how families can help raise a happy, joyful children who want to learn?

Amy O'Leary (15:58):

We see so much of that change in the early elementary grades. And we know those teachers are working hard. There are different requirements. Early educators also reflect the students as far as diversity and some of the demographic data that we collect in a better way than we've seen in K-12 and higher education. So we want to support the current workforce, you know, be able to attract high-quality educators. I think early where this used to be a second choice career. We are now seeing people who want to do this, and they want to be able to live their life and have a livable wage, not just livable wage, but to be really rewarded for this tough work.

Joshua Croke (16:38):

And there are a couple of things that I want to underscore and what you said to our listeners as well. And I think part of that is the reality that third-graders are dropping out of school and the criticality of what that means for the context of our communities. And I think in some of the school-to-prison pipeline work that I do, we see that whether folx are leaving school or exiting school at those ages, or are not at, or above a third-grade reading level, and they do advance into later years, their likelihood of being suspended or manifesting like behaviors that are not desired in the classroom manifest more regularly with students because of often tied to frustrations around challenges, engaging in learning when you didn't have that foundational support for, for reading. And again, the racial equity piece in that is those behaviors are treated differently when they're manifested in black and brown boys predominantly.

Joshua Croke (17:42):

But we also see that in black and brown girls, disabled students, and other marginalized identity folx. So I just wanted to underscore for listeners some of that context there. And the other piece that I think, is so critical in this dialogue is the choice for folx to be really supporting young people at this level, getting into this work, connecting to educational opportunities, the higher-ed landscape. One of the things that Kim said in our last conversation that really resonated with me was that learning happens in the context of relationships and how present and important that is in the early years. So related to some of this conversations that we've been having, how does that kind of resonate with you? And is that something that you also kind of see and kind of lead in your work?

Amy O'Leary (18:40):

Absolutely. And I think one of the things about early education is it goes unrecognized and unnoticed because it is at the core of what we do and what we believe about young children during the pandemic Strategies for Children started a daily Zoom call. So now here we are in November, 2021, we continue to do this four days a week. We did it five days a week for over a year just to bring a community together. And we learned and heard about the problem-solving skills, how they connected with families, how they connected with four year olds on Zoom, how they dropped off kids at their home, how they help support basic needs like food. And so early educators have always valued relationships. And it's a special kind of relationship you have to have when you're dropping your 18 month off, you know, for any childcare program you are handing over your baby, whether that baby is six months old or five years old.

Amy O'Leary (19:36):

So I think the rest of the education system that can learn a lot by looking at the way that we value relationships, that we also are teaching young children how to value relationships and the community that we've been able to assemble. We've about a 700 person invite. This began about 70 people every morning just shows that people want to be in community. They want to be talking about the challenges and the opportunities. You know, I've only lost it, crying on Zoom a few times during the pandemic, but it was always one of an educator was telling their story or director had talked about the lengths that they had gone to support families. We have been in the scarcity mindset because that's the way we’ve have been funded. We are always told, “do more with less, we'll get to you next time.” This federal package that is happening, we are number two and a priority in the Build Back Better. My national colleagues have said we've never been number two in anything. So to have billions of dollars to first fill in the holes that are decades old, and then thinking about climbing out and really being able to support a system that's going to produce happy children, well-educated children, and to really support families. And this navigation is the dream come true for me as an advocate and as an educator. And I just, I'm very hopeful about the future for where we sit right now.

Joshua Croke (20:56):

And so as you look ahead into 2022, what are some of your hopes?

Amy O'Leary (21:01):

So next Tuesday, if we get a little policy, wonkish is a Public Hearing around education and it's the bills that all relate to early education and care. So the Common Start Coalition that has been a coalition working for universal access to childcare in Massachusetts. There's a piece of legislation that will be heard. Then we also know that Congress is working on this final Build Back Better proposal, which will be a historic investment in every state. We also know that local communities like Worcester are coming together to figure out some of these challenges that might exist locally and how we can remove barriers to just do simple things like share data, understand where all the young children are in Worcester and then really as families, what they want and need. We are going to need the local state and federal cooperation and alignment to really re-imagine what it looks like for young children. So I'm very hopeful that that will happen. And for the first time we are talking about resources that start with B and not M so billions of dollars.

Joshua Croke (22:07):

So what are some of the most elegant, next steps to get us there? And how do communities like Worcester move ahead this agenda, like what can listeners do to support this work?

Amy O'Leary (22:18):

So first is to get to know your elected officials. So you have local state and federal officials. Our delegation in Washington, DC is supportive of this issue. So we need to remember that they support this to thank them and encourage them to fight the fight in Washington DC. And if you're at the state level, sharing your story, we have a blog I and Early Education where we want to lift up the voices of families and educators to tell the story and what are the solutions that work. We also know that people can talk to their early educators, ask them questions, get information about how much their salary is, get mad about how low it is, and then think about what those policy solutions are. But as you said about the relationship. Building relationships with people, I think that the pandemic has taught us that we value this and that people need other people to solve these problems.

Joshua Croke (23:13):

What do you think are some of the greatest challenges that face this movement to get more funding, get more support center, this as a priority?

Amy O'Leary (23:23):

We can sometimes be our own worst enemy because our system is very complex. We start talking in acronyms, we start really getting into the nitty-gritty without kind of hitting the headlines of what we really want. So I think as advocates to be clear about the message, to be clear about the research and the solution right now, we know there's also a legislative commission working on the financing. So there has been attention paid to this. We have to help develop the solutions.

Joshua Croke (23:56):

So as we move through this mini season on early education and care, we're going to be speaking with some other individuals like Eve Gilmore from Edward Street. What are the questions we should be asking experts in this space?

Amy O'Leary (24:11):

I would be asking, I would also encourage you to have some educators come and join and tell their story. And we also believe in supporting people when they're telling their story and not using it as an opportunity to exploit or have shame. There's a lot of shame in our field because of the low wages, because people wonder why would you keep doing this job? So I think appreciating what people are bringing to the table. And I also think the questions would be like, when has it felt successful? What does it feel like when you have a win with children and families? And then we ask a question of what would you hope that policymakers know about your work? What does it look like to have a high-quality program? Why do you get out of bed every day to do this? And I think in Worcester, especially what does that community voice look like? What will have to change to really see some action? There has always been a ton of support, but we never quite get over the hill of really, really taking risks and maybe changing a few things to better support children and families.

Joshua Croke (25:14):

Thank you. And, and in our last minute here as, you know, time always flies by one of the things that I always find challenging in advocacy work, or, you know, moving these things forward is seeming like societies need to hear personal stories that impact them in some emotional or relatable way and doing storytelling based work and facilitation. There's so much power in how we craft and share stories. And at the same time, I challenge why we need to create such a direct look at how this could influence your life. Instead of just recognizing that these are challenges people face. So in, I know that's in a last minute a difficult thing maybe to tackle, but wondering your thoughts.

Amy O'Leary (26:05):

Thinking about this a lot, because I think thinking of the women whose shoulders I'm standing on, who have done this work for decades, we have often heard that early education is the most over studied and under resource part of the education system. And you're right, we should be doing this because it helps children. It helps families. It helps the economy and maybe taking a little bit of a step back and really appreciating social, emotional development, learning how to share, take turns. All those things that we value in relationships really start when we're young. So we need to believe the research. I really think we aren't quite there yet. I think we know that exists. We understand brain development, but we have to believe how critical these years are.

Joshua Croke (26:48):

Well, thank you, Amy, so much for being here. For listeners, we will include information about Amy and your work in the show notes. Thank you again so much for listening to Public Hearing to our listeners, our podcast and radio show that airs Wednesdays at six on WICN 90.5 FM. Worcester's only NPR affiliate station and can be heard wherever you listen to podcasts. I'm your host, Joshua Croke. If you have ideas for the show or would like to become a supporter, reach out to our team at publichearing.co our audio producer is Giuliano D'Orazio, who also made our fun show music, and thanks to Molly Gammon and Shaun Chung for also supporting the show. Public Hearing has created and produced by Action! By Design a social innovation and change agency, helping people imagine and materialize equitable, and just futures where ideas, people passionate about equity, justice, and joy and innovators that use facilitation and design to address complex problems facing communities. We believe the strongest ideas to solve those problems come from within the communities that are most impacted by them, which is why we create the show. Learn more about our work at actionbydesign.co. Thanks for listening.