Interview with NH ChILD Executive Director Dr. Wendy Simmons
A Conversation with Dr. Wendy Simmons, Executive Director of New Haven Children’s Ideal Learning District In conversation with Dr. Taniesha…
J.P. I’m Jasmine Palmer. As Senior Director of Early Childhood Mental Health and Social Work Services I develop and oversee programming which speaks to the social and emotional development of young children. We employ a whole-child care lens which means that we necessarily consider the wellbeing of the family system. We offer both counseling and case management services for parents and families in crisis. Finally, our model support for children’s learning is inextricably linked to one-on-one work with the teaching team. We serve as thought partners and coaches to support educators’ understanding of mental health, social emotional learning, and meaningful family engagement.
L. HH.: My name is Louis Hamlyn-Harris – I am a Senior Director of the Early Childhood program at Manny Cantor Center. I started my career as a preschool teacher in Australia, where I grew up, and have worked and taught in early childhood settings in Australia, Vietnam, and here in the US. I’ve been at MCC for nearly five years, during which time we’ve seen significant changes in the way we offer school for families – I was lucky to come in at a moment when the conversation about integrating our early childhood programs was really starting to get some traction. With my Co-Senior Director, Jacqueline Marks, we oversee programming for children ages birth to five, delivered out of our integrated progressive preschool at MCC.
In reality, community building and social integration require structural change. -Louis H.H.
L. HH.: Educational Alliance is our parent organization and oversees our flagship community center on the Lower East Side. We’ve been downtown on East Broadway for over 130 years, and early childhood has been part of our programming from the very beginning. In that time our school has been through many different iterations, but the through-line has been supporting the immigrant community on the Lower East Side. The immigrant story in our neighborhood has changed over time – there’s no single immigrant story – but the idea of being a place where new Americans, including young children, can find a sense of community and belonging, and can access resources that are responsive to their needs and strengths, has been a constant.
L. HH.: For a very long time, our community center hosted two separate and distinct early childhood programs. We had a progressive, tuition-based preschool very much in-line with the Ideal Learning Roundtable’s definition of ideal learning – centered on an image of children as competent and capable, with an emphasis on inspiring environments that encourage inquiry, exploration and self-directed play. We were also one of NYC’s pilot Head Start sites, and have offered Head Start programming since 1965. For a long time, our Head Start program was somewhat under-resourced educationally but it had a sophisticated understanding of the child as part of a family system, and as the entry point for families to receive resources and supports that could support stability and thriving. Our mental health and social work department was embedded in the school, designed so that play therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and other critical resources could be delivered internally from trusted sources.
Each of these programs had separate budgets, leadership teams, and educational philosophies, so we had this two-tiered model where access was completely determined by families’ ability to pay tuition or qualify for Head Start. Children, families and staff shared space but didn’t have meaningful opportunities to connect, collaborate, and build relationships. We saw that social integration wasn’t possible so long as there were these artificial distinctions determined by funding source. And of course, when we think about the bigger context in NYC, this is not at all unusual – before your child ages enters the public school system, income largely determines your access to early childhood education and the kinds of choices you have. We talk about the ‘donut hole’ – there are not a lot of options for families who fall between these two poles of the continuum, which happens to be most people.
So for the past few years we’ve undergone a process of dismantling that system. We built an integrated school model, where all children and families attend the same school, in the same classrooms, with the same teachers and a shared understanding of children’s potential. Most importantly, funding sources are now a back-end problem for our finance team rather than these visible dividing lines that determine your school experience. Our goal is that our integrated preschool becomes the pipeline to a more integrated, more responsive public school system. In reality, community building and social integration require structural change. It’s not enough to bump into each other in the hallway. We need structures that support meaningful connection, cooperation and healing – structures that encourage us to see one another in our full humanity.
Children don’t think in terms of how much money your mom makes or your dad makes. What they do think or care about is ‘here are some amazing blocks, and I think it would be so much fun to build together with a friend and create something unique as a joint experience.’ -Jasmine P.
L. HH.: We serve an extremely diverse community of about 250 families across our different funding sources: Head Start, Early Head Start, Tuition, Universal Pre-k, and relatively small amounts of state-funded child care. A majority of our children and families primarily speak Chinese at home. For many of these families, our school is their first experience in a majority English-speaking environment. So I think part of the work of bringing our programs together is really thinking about what it means to be responsive, and to honor and reflect that linguistic and cultural diversity and celebrate languages other than English. In other words, we need to ensure that we’re not only communicating information to families but really giving a mirror and a platform to their perspectives and experiences. That means changing our hiring practices to bring in incredible staff who speak the languages our families speak, really interrogating the books and materials we use, and thinking how we set up our classroom environments. Our community center is unusual in being a place that does belong to just one section of the community or one demographic group or income category. Many different people feel a real sense of comfort, belonging and ownership here.
J.P.:. What feels really unique about MCC is that by design we have a robust and responsive mental health program planted directly into the early childhood program — we’ve made mental health a priority. We are also very intentional around making sure that there is a “call and response” rhythm to the way in which mental health and social work work within the larger school system. All of our classrooms have teaching teams and social workers are part of those cohorts. They are embedded within the life of the classrooms and the school. We believe in a whole-child approach, which looks at the ways children show up and which ways we can be present for them. Not only in terms of knowing their numbers, shape, and letters, and colors, but also understanding those intricate social relationships. How to build those relationships, how to model those relationships for children, how to be present when children are having challenging moments, not only in the classrooms but in their lives, are very important. Issues like are they eating, are they sleeping — these are things we as a school are thinking about from an educational but also a social work perspective.
We are really a school that is built on close observation of children and honoring children’s full selves. -Louis H.H.
J. P: Children don’t think in terms of how much money your mom makes or your dad makes. What they do think or care about is ‘here are some amazing blocks, and I think it would be so much fun to build together with a friend and create something unique as a joint experience’. Our integration model was inspired by children. Because that is how children learn and connect. That is what school should be about — building relationships with children from all walks of life.
L. HH.: I agree with Jasmine! There is also something important here about choice. I think that very often children and families from non-dominant backgrounds come into our school system hearing a really pernicious message. The message is that your child is starting their educational journey at a deficit and will need intensive intervention in order to catch up and compete. In other words, full participation will follow from identifying and targeting your child’s weaknesses rather than celebrating and building from their strengths. This feeds into the narrative that progressive education — education that emphasizes inquiry, exploration, investigation, and play — is a luxury that your child cannot afford. We know it’s a myth that families from low-income backgrounds are not interested in progressive education. Trust for Learning has actually done really interesting work around this. But our system doesn’t give all families meaningful choices. If you have the means to pay tuition, you have lots of options. You can go to the traditional preschool if you want to, or you can go to the Montessori, or Reggio Emilia- inspired or Waldorf school. One of our goals is to give that choice back to all families — to create an accessible, integrated setting that reflects our best understanding of the kinds of environments that children actually thrive in and where children’s curiosity can find its fullest potential and expression.
If you have the means to pay tuition, you have lots of options. You can go to the traditional preschool if you want to, or you can go to the Montessori, or Reggio Emilia- inspired or Waldorf school. –Louis H.H.
J. P.: As I mentioned, social workers are embedded. For example, we have biweekly meetings to consider what social-emotional learning looks like in real-time in the classroom. We make sure that what we are building is classroom culture and not just an add-on or a weekly theme — like ‘this is the month that we are talking about sharing’. No! We make social-emotional learning a core principle of what we do. Everything from how your class schedule is presented, to how you say good morning to the children, to how you encourage them to connect to each other. That’s what those team meetings look at.
We also have monthly case conferences. Case conferences are really interesting in the sense that this is the moment where everyone who has some sort of investment in a child’s functioning (which is everybody) comes to the table. These conferences might be around a child who is having some difficulty adjusting to being in the classroom space. We know that when those moments are happening, this is a time to think about what is happening to this child from various points of view and interdisciplinary approaches. Then we can begin to piece together a really responsive plan that takes into account everything from how this child may deal with transitions within the classroom, to understanding how the child’s family functions. We know that how a family functions impacts how a child shows up in the classroom. We can strategize an approach from many vantage points: developmental, social-emotional, psychological, and from a functioning lens, in terms of that family. So that in the end we have a support plan that is inclusive, responsive, dynamic, and looks holistically at the life of this child. This of course complements the incredible work our teachers do to build relationships with families every day.
Integration is something children benefit from because their thinking has been expanded. – Jasmine P.
J.P.: That is such a great question and I am so glad you asked it. I was in a meeting not long ago, where the teaching team, the associate director, teacher, and social worker were collaborating to support a little girl who is having a hard time adjusting to the classroom space. At the center was the teacher who was really thinking about what was happening to this child, in terms of trying to assign holistic reasoning, understanding, and meaning to her behavior. The team really began to layer and put together a plan that was very much designed around how you give this child who has a sense of alienation and doesn’t quite know how to connect, a real feeling of belonging. They thought about buddies and intentional small groups. But what got me so excited during this conference was the “I wonder if” thinking that was so nuanced about putting all these support systems together and being responsive. If that was my child in the classroom, I would feel really excited that the teachers were thinking about my child that way. There are different examples of teachers just saying “Hey, I haven’t thought about it that way.” For example, we started the year with conversations about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a way of really helping to support children and families’ physiological needs all the way to self-actualization. I remember teachers reaching out after that training saying “I haven’t thought about it in that way. That actually makes sense to me, and I can get onboard with that.” That is just a beautiful thing!
L. HH.: I think Jasmine beautifully described how central sensitive observation is to supporting children through crisis, trauma, and challenging behaviors, and how powerful it is when teachers have the opportunity to see children in their fullest humanity and in full context. This is also the basis of good curriculum planning! Our teachers do a wonderful job of using documentation to surface children’s theories, questions, and prior knowledge, which helps them understand what resources children are coming to school with, what are they curious about, interested in, and what they already know. Our teachers reflect on this documentation to plan experiences that are really designed to push children’s thinking deeper, to prompt new connections and relationships, promote collaboration and negotiation. It’s been so gratifying to find this shared sympathy and shared vocabulary between our education and mental health teams. We are really a school that is built on close observation of children and honoring children’s full selves.
Our integration model was inspired by children. -Jasmine P.
L.HH.: This is such a straightforward question but I also find it quite hard to answer. Because I think an inequitable system like ours conditions us to imagine meaningful distinctions between children whose families have access to wealth and children whose families don’t. But these are artificial distinctions — children have never observed them or dignified them. So I think when we integrated our classrooms, children did what children do. They made friends. They navigated conflicts. They collaborated, cooperated, pushed boundaries, and did all of the things that we socially and developmentally expect and treasure in young children. The success we’ve had at building a community that allows us to see across differences has really come from our children. Their relationships have planted that seed. They have created spaces where adults, families, community members who might not otherwise have come together can do so meaningfully and with purpose. It’s given us a stronger, more complicated, more connected school.
J.P: I think that on a conscious level, do kids know that this is happening? And to Louis’ point, No! But I think it is felt and sensed. On an intellectual level, integration is something children benefit from because their thinking has been expanded. When thinking is expanded and adults are encouraged to reach and go beyond their comfort level, then we can be present for children in different ways. It makes room for a more responsive and dynamic classroom experience for children which is the ultimate benefit.
The goal of integration is that it should be seamless for families. -Jasmine P.
L.HH.: I am not aware of any significant government funding for early childhood that specifically prohibits school integration, blending, or braiding funding. But it is difficult. So many people who engage in this work feel like they need to build from scratch. There aren’t a ton of models or much documentation from folks who have done this work before. And our work is so local — it’s very different to do this work in the Lower East Side of Manhattan than it is in a different part of the country. On a basic level, I’d say that it’s critically important to have a finance team that supports your mission and understands that funding should support and not restrict access to resources. For example, we spent a long time figuring out an allocation model that would allow children who are not Head Start eligible to receive support like play therapy and housing support.
You need an allocation methodology that will make sure everybody’s salary, every crayon you buy, every investment you make in the school is being split in a reasonable, equitable, and justifiable way against your different funding sources. So that when you are in the front line you can make those decisions based on need, based on goodness of fit, and not on funding source. It’s hard to do this if you don’t have access to unrestricted funding, so fundraising can be important.
J.P: Also the goal of integration is that it should be seamless for families. And I would have to say so far, anecdotally by account from families, it has been a successful journey.
Most importantly, funding sources are now a back-end problem for our finance team rather than these visible dividing lines that determine your school experience. –Louis H.H.
L. HH.: I have learned something about the pace of change. I remember describing the work we were starting to a colleague at a conference. Afterwards, she said “Oh wow, that sounds like a real five-year plan.” And I remember thinking, how ridiculous! We can do this in a year and a half. But actually, that person was exactly right. Meaningful change probably does happen in something like a 5-year increment. And I didn’t properly understand that not everybody is equally defended against change. When opportunities arise, it can be very easy to make change without being mindful about who that might destabilize, or leave behind, or what people might need in order to catch up with that change. Something we have learned over the years is that we need to carve out more time, and create space to support people through the process of change at every level. And we need to keep finding ways to bring more voices to the table.
J. P.: As a team, it’s been really powerful to give people that space. Even in the midst of integration in all its complexity, we had the comfort of powerful, generative, honest conversations. That’s part of the process of having an authentic program that can go back and forth internally. And I grieve for folks who don’t have that and instead just have people who just say “yes and yes.”
So I think we are living in that place of radical uncertainty and finding stability in our community as we hold each other steady in that space. -Louis H.H.
J.P: I would say that what happens next for us is that we continue to be really responsive to the concrete needs that families have, especially in regards to their mental health. And to that end, we are partnering with other folks in the communities to have a more robust mental health presence for early childhood and our families. It’s more important right now to think about how we can respond on the spot to a family who says “I don’t know where I am sleeping tonight, I don’t have enough to eat, or I am afraid of my safety.” That is our priority right now and what we aspire to have as services for our families.
L.HH.: We are about to launch our first-ever fully integrated Parent Policy Council. I’m excited to share power with this really representative parent body as we envision the future of the school. The humbling thing about COVID is that it’s gotten us much more comfortable with saying that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. So I think we are living in that place of radical uncertainty and finding stability in our community as we hold each other steady in that space.
A Conversation with Dr. Wendy Simmons, Executive Director of New Haven Children’s Ideal Learning District In conversation with Dr. Taniesha…
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