Pittsburgh’s Early Learning Soiree

by Shimira Williams, 2016-17 OCDEL Policy Fellowship Alumni 

I am Shimira Williams, a Pennsylvania Office of the Child Development and Early Learning Policy Fellowship alumni.  In early February I decided to host an Early Learning Soiree after attending a meeting at the Navus House in the Central Northside neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh. The venue was perfect for the evening the Homewood Child Care Associate members always talked about, during planning meetings. The members are home-based early learning providers that wants to host an evening to just relax and talk shop but not have a formal agenda and new activities to complete. Since I had access to the venue, I started planning an evening and here’s what I learned.   


Have a budget and vision for the atmosphere you want to create for the meet-up. First, ask how are you going to pay for it? Next, Who do you want in the room and what type of connections are you hoping to spark between the attendees?  Once you’ve answered these questions do some research: ask yourself who in your network can support your effort as well as what’s happening in your local, regional or national ecosystem?


For this initial meet-up, I was intentional about focusing on getting home-based early learning providers in a new environment so they might see themselves as business owners or community leaders. With this in mind,  I tapped into the City of Pittsburgh’s Inclusive Innovation Week, since there were no barriers to entry to participate. Once my idea was approved and added the Inclusive Innovation Week calendar I gained credibility and was able to secure the desired location for the meet-up.


Next, I reached out to my Pittsburgh-based colleagues from the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning Policy Fellowship to join me in doing five-minute ignite style talks about their work in early learning. They all graciously accepted the invite, and I looped in the fellowship team into the conversation. The Heinz Endowments funded the alumni cohort of the policy fellowship and noticed the event which how the conversation started about sponsorship.  It was unexpected but allow us to rethink our catering services and hire a photographer. For this event, I reached out to AxnFgr Visual to send a photographer to document the evening because I wanted to be a host.


The essential component to hosting any meetup or event is to be flexible and have fun. As a former early learning provider, I know that a definitive plan is necessary, but it can all go differently fast, and you need to be willing to adapt to people’s needs. The primary reason for organizing the meetup is to share resources amongst women business owner and executive in early learning and human services. Let the attendees relax; they spend the majority of their time taking care of children and supporting their families. Here are a few tips for hosting an early learning meet-up in your area.  



Do a little research to discover where you can gain support or who you can align with to implement your idea. Do not limit your search to a local event, consider regional and national initiatives and hashtags. The Early Learning Soiree was April 6, 2018, which overlapped City of Pittsburgh Inclusive Innovation Week (#WeInnovatePGH)  and Month of the Young Child (#MOYC2018), plus it was able to use the common networking hashtag #FirstFriday. In your discovery phase answer these questions.


  • Do you belong to any groups or organizations that can assist or support your idea?
  • How does your idea align with what your community’s need?
  • Are there funding opportunities available?
  • Review the local calendar, what’s around happening in the area?
  • What hashtags and keywords can you utilize?



Location is key to setting the atmosphere and accessibility to meetup. Over the years while participating in the Homewood Child Care Association we had discussed have a meetup. I am in a Facebook group for Pennsylvania providers, in central PA they host a meetup at local restaurants. Find a location that works for you and the be people you want in the room. When you are evaluating a place, ask these questions.

  • Do you want attendees to engage in a specific activity? If so what does it require a particular environment?
  • Is the space handicap accessible?  
  • Will this be a family-friendly environment?
  • What is your parking needs and is it accessible via mass transit?



Invite the people you want in the room. Take the time to invest in sending certain people a physical invitation. Also, create an online registration channel to communicate with potential attendees. Then share this information with your network and ecosystems to spread the word about your meetup. If the event, is closed to a targeted group of people do an invite-only using a link. Here are few free online platforms I utilized to create marketing materials.

  • Canva is a tool that makes it possible to design anything and publish anywhere. With its user-friendly drag and drop tool. With Canva, you can easily create beautiful documents & designs for any occasion and purpose.
  • Eventbrite is a platform to help you build, manage, and grow your events that integrates seamlessly with Facebook Events.
  • MailChimp is an marketing automation platform that help customers find their audience, engage their customers, and build their brand.
  1. LET EAT!

I’m a firm believer of doing what’s in your budget. Be creative and find a partner with your local ecosystem, consider a local catering service provider or local farmer. I will admit that Pittsburgh is very fortunate to have a plethora of options and a supportive community.


Meeting at a local eatery is always an option. I still recommend contacting the location in advance, to set a reservation and see if there synergies. It can be something as simple as agreeing to host your meetup of their slow night so they can accommodate your group and it gives the bump in sales.

Who in your local ecosystem can support refreshments for the meetup?

Remember, closed mouths don’t get fed.  



Create a method to collect contact information to follow-up with who’s in the room after the meetup. It’s as simple as taking a picture with your cellphone and sharing on social media. Before you share, get permission from the people. Keep it simple. Create a traditional sign-in sheet that includes a release opt-in. The form should capture attendees Name, Telephone, email address and media release option. Don’t forget to follow-up with a thank note to all the attendees as well as sponsors and partners.


Photo Credit: Raymond Carrington

Location: Navus House, Pittsburgh PA


Nevel Joins CSIU Following Successful Completion of Fellowship Project

by Christy Nevel, 2017 OCDEL Policy Fellowship Graduate

When I graduated from the fellowship in June of 2017, the project I was working on with the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit was not finished.  The EIVT, or Early Intervention Verification Tool, software had been finalized, but the Early Intervention Program Coordinators throughout the state of Pennsylvania had not been trained on using the software.  Because my current position was in the EI field, I sought permission from my mentor, Deb Noel, and my direct supervisor to continue on the project.  Both agreed and allowed me to see the project through to its completion.

From June through November, the EIVT, version 5.0, software was finished and three training webinars were scheduled for the early intervention program staff.  I had the opportunity to participate in all three webinars and to provide “behind-the-scenes” support by answering participant questions in the chat room.   As the last webinar was coming to an end, the Special Projects Technology Manager approached me about my interest in working for the organization, as the Information Technology Consultant, who I was working with on the software project, was planning her retirement in December.  With having no background or formal education in computer science, I was reluctant to consider the position.  However, I have never backed down from a challenge.  When the job vacancy was posted at the CSIU, I was again encouraged to apply by the Special Projects Technology Manager.  He told me half the job would be knowing how to use the EIVT software, which I already knew how to navigate.  He also told me that other aspects of the job, including the use of data bases, running reports, etc. could be taught.  So I went online to apply, knowing this position would place me in direct collaboration with OCDEL, and the people I had come to know and admire through my fellowship experience.  Out of 47 qualified candidates, I was selected for this exciting, new opportunity.

On January 18, 2018, I began my position as the Information Technology Special Projects Specialist for the CSIU.  I am responsible for providing technical assistance to the EI Program Coordinators, EITA staff and EI Advisors for the EIVT software.  I also work with OCDEL and the Department of Public Education on the Kindergarten Entry Inventory, and I am directly responsible for making sure all new kindergarten teachers are proficient in data entry for the KEI software. Additionally, I assist the EI Program Coordinators, both Infant/Toddler and Preschool, with obtaining necessary reports in the Data Warehouse, also known as COGNOS.

As I look to the future, I am excited to learn all this position and organization has to offer as I expand my knowledge in the world of information technology.  I also smile when I say my new job title, as it includes the phrase “IT”, which has always been intimidating to me because of my limited experience with computer programming and computer problem solving.  However, I will continue to apply my leadership strengths to this position, as I have done in every position I’ve held in the social services field. I also have the fellowship to thank for this new career opportunity, as I would have never considered moving into the IT field had it not been for my project assignment.

My First Press Conference at the Capitol

by Tyrone Scott, 2017 OCDEL Policy Fellowship Graduate



I am kind of a weird guy.  I realized this when I was about 12 years old, but I have been reminded of this more and more in years months.  In a recent meeting I was asked “Why would a 40 something former pro wrestler want to advocate for kids?”  That was a fair question but I think I do this for the same reason we all do it; to make the world a better place.

In my quest to make the world a better place, I joined the OCDEL Policy Fellowship.  This program had multiple benefits, but the one that is most relevant to the point of this blog (which I promise I will get to at some point) is the access to high ranking state officials.  Meetings with Secretaries of Human Services and Education, the Deputy Secretary of OCDEL, and even bumping into the Governor while buying pizza while at the OCDEL Policy Fellowship helped me prepare for an exciting but nerve-racking experience last week.

I have been lucky enough to be seen as an expert in early childhood education that legislators can turn to.  Last week State Representatives Solomon and Mehaffie introduced House Bill 1742 and invited me to attend the press conference since I helped them craft the legislation as part of a group of concerned stakeholders.  What I did not know, is they were hoping I would “say a few words about the process of developing the bill”.

Literally 5 minutes before we were to be on stage, I was asked if I could I say a few words. I was happy to share my knowledge and story of why informing families of STARS ratings is important, which is what the bill proposes, but I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to speak to reporters at a formal press conference had I not already had audiences with some of the most powerful people in the Commonwealth.  For those wondering, when I stepped up to the microphone I said the following…. OK. I literally have no idea of what I said, but I assume and hope it was something like this:

“Raising children is a task that none of us could ever be prepared for.  No matter hope many books we read or friends we listen to or little cousins, nephews, or nieces we borrow to ‘practice with’ for a weekend, we will never understand the awesome responsibility until it happens to us.  I believe that most families love their children and want the best for them. I believe most early education providers love working with children and want the best for them.  Issues arise when we don’t know what ‘the best’ is.

We are fortunate enough to live in a state where the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) has devised a way to inform both families and providers of where they stand in terms of quality.  A simple one to four rating scale lets us know where our children will be spending their time… or it would if every family was made aware of what their child’s provider’s STAR rating is.  This legislation proposes a way to do that so all families will know what they are getting.

OCDEL has recently made the STARS system more user friendly and flexible to allow providers of all shapes and sizes to move through the ratings as long as they can demonstrate quality in their own way.  We want to be fair to all providers and encourage them to take advantage of the free technical assistance provided by the STARS system to assure they reach the highest quality ratings.”

Of course what I probably said was  “Uh… STARS are good and families should know that.  Thank you.”

Jumpstart’s Read for the Record: Using My Fellowship Experience to Build Partnerships

by Christa Hunter, 2017 OCDEL Policy Fellowship Graduate

“Imagine starting a race knowing more than half of your competitors will be given a head start. Not exactly fair, is it?”

I read those words on a brochure during my freshman year of college before submitting my application to the Jumpstart Pittsburgh program at the University of Pittsburgh. Jumpstart is a national early education organization that recruits and trains college students and community members to serve preschool children in under-resourced communities through a language, literacy, and social-emotional curriculum. Jumpstart was the greatest experience for me during my time in college. I was able to spend a significant amount of time in preschool classrooms each week, learn about early childhood education in our state, and discover my passion for the field. It was an eye-opening experience and one I am truly grateful for since it set me on the career path I am today.

After graduating, I was fortunate enough to become a Jumpstart Site Manager. I truly enjoyed watching the college students I managed grow and learn. I coached and supported pre-service teachers inside and outside of the classroom every week, communicated with child care staff on a regular basis, and connected with families during events. During this past year, I was able to take on a new role at Temple University’s College of Education as the Assistant Director for Early Learning Services and Career & Student Development. I continue to work with pre-service teachers as well as support the college’s early learning initiatives. I still work closely with the Jumpstart Site Managers and do everything I can to support the work our students are doing in the field.


Last year, I participated in the OCDEL Policy Fellowship. This gave me the opportunity to learn more about OCDEL’s policies and procedures, meet leaders across the state, and develop leadership skills to help me grow as a professional. Additionally, I connected with leaders at OCDEL such as Deputy Secretary Suzann Morris who provided us with insight on the state of early learning in Pennsylvania. Being a native from Philadelphia, I was inspired by Suzann’s leadership and encouraged to continue to grow as a leader myself.

This year, we are grateful for Deputy Secretary Morris’s support of Jumpstart’s Read for the Record not just at Temple University but across the state. Jumpstart’s Read for the Record highlights the importance of high-quality early education in America by mobilizing millions of children and adults to celebrate literacy by participating in the largest shared reading experience. On October 19th, children and adults around the world will highlight the importance of children’s literacy by reading, “Quackers” by Liz Wong. In Philadelphia, we try to engage as many people in the city to participate in this national event and spread the word about the importance of high-quality early education and literacy. Community members, Temple faculty, staff, and students, Jumpstart Corps members, teachers, and children participate in our celebration every year at Temple University.



My participation in the OCDEL Fellowship provided me with the confidence to connect with leaders at the state and local level to participate in this year’s event at Temple. I have actively been seeking more opportunities to get involved in early childhood education conversations in my city to bring back to my students as they prepare for their future as educators and I am looking forward to continuing my growth and development with the skills I learned from this experience.

* To learn more about Jumpstart’s Read for the Record and how to get involved, click here: https://www.jstart.org/read-for-the-record/

** If you would like to participate in Temple University’s event on October 19th, please email jumpstart@temple.edu for more information.

Kaufmann Joins OCDEL Bureau of Early Intervention Services as EI Advisor

by Heather Kaufmann, 2017 OCDEL Policy Fellowship Graduate

In 2010, I began my journey in the Early Intervention field as a Service Coordinator at a local county program. My previous work experience consisted of teaching at multiple child care centers, as well as a few years in retail management. With no prior knowledge of the Early Intervention field, I felt nervous but also excited as I had always enjoyed working with children. During my time as a Service Coordinator, I learned a lot about child development and the process that families go through to obtain services and supports for their children.  I fell in love with the field and realized that there was so much more that I could be doing for these families. I was promoted to EI Coordinator in 2015 and quickly became involved in various state level meetings and committees.  One of the most exciting things, however, was being accepted into the inaugural OCDEL Policy Fellowship. I thoroughly enjoyed working directly with families, but these committees and meetings helped me to recognize that I had a desire to be part of the bigger picture, not just on the local level but at the state level.

Just  last month, I achieved my goal  and was hired as an Early Intervention Advisor with the Bureau of Early Intervention Services at OCDEL. My background knowledge from the local EI program has really prepared me to jump right into this new role. Additionally, my Fellowship experience has assisted in easing the transition. The knowledge that I acquired during the fellowship regarding how state government works, as well as OCDEL’s relationship with the policymakers has been very beneficial, even in the first few weeks on the job. One of the best examples of how I am utilizing the knowledge that I gained during the Fellowship happened during my very first week, when I was asked to join a team that was working on a data request from an outside organization. I felt prepared for the meeting because OCDEL’s data manager had spoken to  us regarding data requests; what they are, and how they are handled here at OCDEL.

My time in the OCDEL Policy Fellowship was extremely valuable in supporting my work at the local level.  I am excited to apply that knowledge to my new position with OCDEL and where my new OCDEL journey takes me.

Tolliver Named One of “Who’s Next” in Education

On July 26th, Will Tolliver, a 2017 OCDEL Policy Fellowship Graduate, was  recognized for his contributions to Pittsburgh’s Education Landscape.  The Incline, a Pittsburgh-based online news publication, highlighted 18 educators from around the Pittsburgh region with an array of skills.  Tolliver’s highlight is as follows:

“William B. Tolliver, Jr. is a program associate for Educational Projects at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children aka PAEYC. He started the role in August 2016. Tolliver provides support to make grant-funded education initiatives happen and focuses on projects for children from birth to fourth grade. His nominator praised him for coordinating a program called Raising Readers, “a literacy initiative that brings books, children, as well as Zone 5 police officers, to learn and connect with one another.” He was previously the Homewood nature educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and assistant to the director for Creek Connections. Tolliver is a board member of the Day One Project, is on the Pennsylvania Environmental Educators Capacity Leadership Team and is an alumni fellow with the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning. He is a graduate of Allegheny College and lives in Shadyside.”

Since then, Tolliver has moved on from his role at PAEYC and is enjoying the opportunity to get back to his environmental education roots and passion for the outdoors.

Pittsburgh’s The Incline “Who’s Next: Education”