Equity Movement Building Place-Based
New Haven ChILD

A Conversation with Dr. Wendy Simmons, Executive Director of New Haven Children’s Ideal Learning District

In conversation with Dr. Taniesha A. Woods Myles

What is NH ChILD and when did it begin?

New Haven Children’s Ideal Learning District (NH ChILD) proposes to revolutionize the early care and education landscape in New Haven, Connecticut by bringing the community together around a common vision of Ideal Learning. NH ChILD was conceptualized by Bank Street College of Education and the Friends Center for Children with support from the Trust for Learning (TFL) and the TFL’s Ideal Learning Roundtable (ILR). At the time, the ILR consisted of the following approaches: Reggio Emilio, Friends Center for Children, Bank Street College of Education, and Montessori.

NH ChILD’s goal is for all children ages birth to 8 to receive quality early care and education experiences. Our work is grounded in equity and a series of guiding principles and values. To achieve this goal, New Haven needs additional seats in quality early childhood programs to provide access for all children. At the same time, we need to design a differentiated set of professional learning opportunities to increase the capacity of care providers and educators to provide consistent, developmentally appropriate experiences for all young children.  At this stage, we offer these two key pathways to bring NH ChILD to reality: Access and Quality. NH ChILD incorporates the principles of ideal learning, as defined by ILR, as the foundational approach to quality. With initial funding from the Trust for Learning, NH ChILD was launched in 2017 with the release of the Making the Case document and incorporated in 2019.

What was your first impression of NH ChILD?

That it was ambitious. NH ChILD is all about systemic change. The desire to create lasting change that will make a difference for children, their families, as well as the early care and education profession was exciting.

What do you find most challenging about NH ChILD?

My biggest challenge is finding the balance between programmatic and operational responsibilities. I often go from thinking about big, lofty, programmatic ideas to the minutia of running a small community organization. For example, I may be on a call with a statewide coalition discussing how to build a better early care and education system or with an attorney discussing our homebuyers program and then move to something operational, such as paying bills – sometimes within the same hour!

What sorts of trends do you see in early care and education?

The pandemic has been devastating to early care and education programs. Recent reports suggest that many programs will not survive the next year without additional funding and support. Yet, there is a new appreciation for the educators of young children. So many educators make their knowledge, skills, nurturing, and care look easy. However, since the pandemic, the value of early care and education is being discussed from many different perspectives: parents, corporations, community organizations, and government leaders. The challenge will be to translate that value into financial support such that families have high-quality care and education for their children, teachers receive a livable wage, and programs have what they need to not only survive challenges but thrive in a post-pandemic world.

What would you say are some of your strongest beliefs about early care and education?

I believe that early care and education is essential. Long before people spoke about brain science and return on investment, I understood that children’s first experiences matters. These experiences make a difference for children: their future educational and social lives. It is the value that high-quality early care and education have to make in children’s lives (individually and collectively) that drives me.

What’s your personal philosophy on what should be done about early care and education?

I believe that high-quality early care and education should be abundant and free (or close to free) for all families who need it. Too often, when we build systems for a portion of society, we make them inequitably. NH ChILD envisions every child in New Haven (all 15,000) from birth to age 8 having access to ideal learning environments. If high-quality opportunities are abundant, families will have choices. With choices, families will not function in a climate of scarcity. Scarcity reduces cooperation and partnership while increasing competition among providers. I believe that if we fully fund early care and education, then families truly have access, and young people see early education as a viable profession.

What does a typical day look like for you? How do collaborations across various sectors and/or organizations influence the work of NH ChILD?

There are no typical days for me. NH ChILD is a part of New Haven’s Early Childhood Council, Connecticut’s Early Childhood Alliance. We collaborate with the City of New Haven, the early childhood division of New Haven Public Schools, the Greater New Haven Chapter of the Connecticut Association for the Education of Young Children, as well as other organizations. We have the opportunity to engage a cross-section of the community via our advisory councils representing traditional and non-traditional early childhood partners. These relationships ensure that we constantly challenge ourselves to think innovatively with children, their families, and with equity at the center.

How does an equity perspective inform the work of NH ChILD and the partnerships that are formed and how they function?

Everything that we do, we do with a desire to promote equity. In fact, NH ChILD was created to address the racism and misogyny embedded in America’s early care and education system. We believe that racism and misogyny result in inadequate access to early care and education environments that are informed by ideal learning for too many low-income families, especially families of color.  We recently shared our approach to addressing issues of equity and systemic racism in the early care and education system in a paper entitled: “Towards Equity and Justice: Reimagining a Strong, Holistic, and Integrated Early Care and Education System in 2020″.

What are your thoughts about replicating the NH ChILD model in other communities? If you think it’s possible, are there any caveats that other communities should consider?

We plan to share the learning from both the outcomes and the journey of developing NH ChILD. New Haven has many assets. It is located in a small state that has a history of innovation to support young children and their families. We can gather as a community of child care advocates to generate change. The professionals in the Office of Early Childhood are accessible and responsive because they know us. The greatest barrier to progress here, like so many other places, is funding due to the state’s financial challenges. For the most part, NH ChILD does not need to convince our leaders that early care and education is important; we are simply working to move it up the priority list.

We understand that this climate may not be accurate in other parts of the country. Yet, regardless of geography, too many families depend on early care and education to allow the adults to work, go to school, and have stimulating, nurturing environments for their children. The challenges of access to high-quality early care and education for all families who desire it are pervasive, and many of the NH ChILD innovations should be relevant across the country.

The model to increase the number of spaces for children birth to age 5 and strategies to make it affordable and accessible for parents to locate will be helpful, although the number needed and the costs will vary. The strategies to improve quality by engaging parents and providing relevant professional learning and career ladder opportunities grounded in ideal learning will translate easily across other communities.

What’s next for NH ChILD?

This year, we plan to continue offering professional learning communities (PLC) in partnership with Bank Street College of Education and the Trust for Learning. PLCs provide an opportunity for participants to network and extend their knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Participants include early childhood educators, practitioners, parents, and community leaders. Through the PLC participants are better able to use developmentally appropriate practices aligned with the ideal learning principles to support children across the birth to age 8 continuum.

We also hope to purchase our first home to pilot our homebuyers initiative. This is still in the early stages but ultimately, we hope to support 68 family childcare providers to own their own home while increasing the early care and education infrastructure in low-opportunity neighborhoods.

What do you do when you aren’t working?

When I am not working, I love cooking and reading. I enjoy great conversation and watching a competitive game of basketball. I have also enjoyed watching my children play sports for the past several years – particularly basketball (umm… did I say that already???).





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