Discovering Paths to Support Families

by Emily Garcia, 2018 OCDEL Policy Fellow


“Emily, I need help finding a preschool for DJ!”

Children have the greatest opportunity to learn and excel when their needs are met. What becomes crucial in fostering their development is the relationships they form with those around them. Throughout my professional career, I’ve had the pleasure of being at the very start of many of these relationships.

My junior year at Temple University, I joined Jumpstart Philadelphia particularly excited to serve the local community and gain more experience in a preschool classroom. 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.  I had no idea the paths Jumpstart would bring me down! Now, nearly five years later, I’m closing in on the end of my second year as the Senior Site Manager for Jumpstart Philadelphia at Temple University. Each year, I provide over 80 Temple students with the same experiences that I had in college, leading them down similar paths, and training them to become the best mentors and teachers for preschool children who need it the most.

In looking to advance my knowledge and understanding of education policy across the Commonwealth, I applied for the OCDEL Policy Fellowship. I came in with an interest in learning more about inclusion, language and literacy efforts, and most of all, the engagement of families in a child’s education. That eagerness was soon met with opportunity. I was able to present at a “Parents at Play” session at the Family Engagement Conference in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I taught families strategies to support children in play at home. Additionally, I have interacted with various OCDEL teams to learn more about their efforts in supporting child development and early education. In my six months with the fellowship, I truly have had a number of different opportunities such as the ones mentioned above that allowed me to grow as a professional. One in particular, was the relationship I’ve been able to form with my mentor, Sarah Holland. Sarah is the Special Assistant to Family Engagement and has played a crucial role in helping me understand and apply how the state engages families in the work that is being done within OCDEL.

However, the impact of my experiences with the fellowship did not hit me until more recently. What began as an introduction to someone who shared a similar passion for education and Jumpstart, reintroduced itself as an opportunity to share this new knowledge gained through the fellowship. A college student of mine with a two-and-a-half-year-old son rushed into my office one day in a panic about where to send her son for preschool the following year. As I began to delve deeper into her situation and walked her through informational resources, it struck me that because of my newly acquired knowledge from the fellowship, I was able to support this student in finding high-quality child care for her son. She left my office feeling confident about next steps and seeking out support for her son during the most crucial years of his early life.

The fellowship has continually been a valuable experience for me professionally and personally. It has broadened my horizons and allowed me to support my Temple University students and Jumpstart children more than ever.

Leveraging Insights

by Kim Cauley Eckel, 2018 OCDEL Policy Fellow

In my role as the Young Child Wellness Coordinator for PA Project LAUNCH, I am continually looking for opportunities to promote the social emotional health of families through pregnancy and the first eight years of life.  Project LAUNCH, which stands for Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health, is a five-year SAMHSA grant that the Commonwealth was awarded.  Allegheny County serves as the local site of implementation, and following the national model for this grant, has five workgroups that meet monthly pursuing various projects related to improving the quality, accessibility and integration of services available to families with young children.

The OCDEL fellowship has not only helped make this state agency more “real” in my mind’s eye by providing the opportunity to directly engage with staff, but has provided me with a great number of insights which is directly impacting my current work leading the implementation of PA Project LAUNCH.

By virtue of being able to share coffee and chat with Deb Daulton before a fellowship meeting began, I will now be able to share Allegheny County’s work to forge cross-sector partnerships and professional development between home visiting programs and opioid centers of excellence at the state’s upcoming Home Visiting conference.

Weekly assignments that cultivate group discussion gave me the opportunity to read the insightful suggestion by one of my colleagues, that pediatricians ought to be educated on OCDEL’s statement about reducing preschool suspensions and expulsions.  Project LAUNCH is in the process of creating communication pieces and professional development content for pediatricians on topics related to early childhood mental health, and unpacking the prevalence and impact of preschool suspensions and expulsions and the services that are available to support families will be a meaningful topic to add to our communication and professional development offerings.

Finally, the OCDEL fellowship provides a meaningful opportunity to hear first-hand from some of the state leaders crafting and implementing early childhood policy.  During one of our sessions, I was able to dig into the substance of our state’s new ESSA plan[1] with OCDEL staff, exploring how our state’s Future Ready PA Index now means that schools will be judged on the basis of the social emotional content delivered to students as prep for “career readiness.”  The Career Readiness Indicator in our state’s index will look to see how schools prepare students on such things as self-reflection, communication and conflict resolution.[2]  These are skills that teachers can learn how to foster in their students via the professional development that LAUNCH has made available.  As we announce the upcoming opportunity for this professional development that we’ll be providing to Allegheny County’s 43 school districts, our cover letter will not only help interpret what the new state ESSA plan will mean for administrators moving forward, but will frame our opportunity as a means of satisfying the requirements of this new plan.

For anyone considering this Fellowship opportunity, I highly recommend it.  There are many opportunities and insights to leverage in the early childhood field by virtue of taking part.





Learning my Strengths through the OCDEL Policy Fellowship

by Jessica Chelik, 2018 OCDEL Policy Fellow

Since starting the fellowship in September, I feel that I have learned new things about myself both professionally and personally.

Prior to the fellowship I was at a crossroads as to what direction in my life I wanted to explore.  The fellowship has allowed me to learn more about different programs under OCDEL that I didn’t have much knowledge about before, such as Keystone STARS and child care. I also learned how long it takes for policies to be developed and the processes involved for a policy to be finalized.

My favorite part of the fellowship thus far has been the Strengths Finders activity.  I found it interesting to learn what my top 5 strengths are. It has also allowed me to use my strengths in my job when interacting with staff and families.

My mentor, Emily Hackleman, has been amazing and very supportive throughout my  fellowship , including my project.  When I tell people that my project is in relation to data, they find it so funny because they know I am the least tech person around.    My vision for my project is that it will be a useful tool for Early Intervention programs when reviewing their data.  My project involves giving suggestions or ways that programs can review their data to help them see their strengths and works on areas that may need improvement.

I am halfway done with my fellowship and I am looking forward to see what I learn during the remainder of the fellowship.


by Ilecia Buckner, 2018 OCDEL Policy Fellow

When they come, don’t stop and stare

Grab a hold of the ones you hold dear

Destiny awaits before your eyes,

Whether you see it or not, don’t be surprised

I have the opportunity to walk with destiny, my friend

And destiny’s cousin, opportunity, met me in the end

I hold the OCDEL Fellowship as an opportunity that destiny hooked up

I hold the OCDEL Fellowship more than just pure luck

I am meeting new people, envisioning new places, seeing new things

I am learning about new endeavors, new projects, new ways to make WINS!

In a field I hold dearly in my heart, in a field where little lives make their start

My colleagues, my mentors, my agency, my state,

Has surrounded me with new knowledge that will help me continue in this fight for ECE’s place,

In a world that didn’t know it or see its value that well

Now it’s my time, it’s our time, OCDEL fellows to make a pitch that will sell

We are selling this to our neighbors, family, and friends

We are selling this to our schools, child cares, and centers

We are selling this to our legislators; federal, local, and state

We are selling this to our families, if they start now it won’t be too late

For their little ones to grow, develop, and learn

For their parenting skills to flourish, get better, developmental successes earned

For their communities to see what quality early childcare can produce

For their hopes and dreams to come alive from the help of the early learning crew

Take a look, take a look, take a look at the walls

Take a look, take a look, take a look through the halls

Look at Sally’s painting

Look at Maria’s “a”

Look at Kevin’s house of blocks

Look at Doa’s pretend play

Listen up, listen up, listen to what they say

Listen up, listen up, listen as they play

Listen to Sally tell her teacher how she feels

Listen to Maria tell her friend how she likes her meal

Listen to Kevin count from one to ten

Listen to Doa sing as all his friends join in

This is what we see and this is what we hear,

When we tune into ECE learning throughout the year

These amazing feats coming from classrooms

Equipped with talented staff,

Who put everything they have into making changes that last

In little minds, in little hearts,

Present, now

Future, later

Thanks for all involved

OCDEL, parents, teachers, fellows, advocates, legislators, directors, trainers

Opportunity has knocked for all involved

Opportunity meets destiny for me!

Opportunity meets destiny for ECE!

Raising My Voice for Early Learners

by Tiffini Simoneaux, 2018 OCDEL Policy Fellow

In my role as the Early Childhood Manager in the Mayor’s Office of Pittsburgh I have the privilege of being able to advocate on behalf of children, families and child care providers in the City.  I recently two opportunities to speak publicly about the need for increased investments in Early Childhood Education on a radio segment as well as at a House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing. I have to admit that public speaking makes me very nervous and is a something that I am continually working on.  I am much more comfortable in front of a class of toddlers or preschoolers than I am being in a room full of adults and elected officials! But my background of having worked as both a teacher and as a Director in high quality early childhood programs pushes me to continue to challenge myself. Because of my former positions I know first-hand the transformative effect that high quality early learning opportunities can have on children. I also know that there are many children in Pittsburgh and throughout the Commonwealth who lack access to quality early learning experiences.

The OCDEL Policy Fellowship has been invaluable to my understanding of work being done at the state level and helps to inform the messages that I share. Just an example of what I have learned so far, before beginning the Fellowship I didn’t have a firm understanding of how the Pennsylvania Department of Education was structured. I look forward to continuing to learn about OCDEL as well as from my peers in the Fellowship. I know that participating in this opportunity will help me grow as a leader as well as a public speaker.


WESA Interview

PA House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing on Quality Education

We Are All Digital Citizens

by Shimira Williams, 2017 OCDEL Policy Fellowship Graduate

We are all digital citizens!

No matter, how much you engage with technology, you are a digital citizen. And it’s our responsibility to build future digital citizens that will shape our digital communities and create future digital tools. Take a moment and think about the evolution of how we listen to and create music.

When I was eight years old, I got a record player, and my mom taught me all about how to take care of it and my albums (LPs). At eleven years old, I got an upgrade to a stereo with a record player, radio, microphone line and dual tape cassette deck.  Now, I could make mix tapes.  For my first trip on an airplane, my family got me a portable CD player.  In my senior year at college, I got a CD burner for my computer. At one point I owned 60 GB of music, today I primarily listen to music via a streaming service. The digital tools I use to listen or create music have evolved. At each point, I had to learn the nuances of the new digital tool. In a desire to learn more, I branched out from home into the community and started visiting my local library.

photo courtesy of Shimira Williams

I doubt when my parents purchased the record player they could imagine; in the future, I would be to create a playlist of my favorite songs and listen to them via wireless earphones from the connection to phone in my pocket. Online and in real life parents are a child’s first teachers. How you use your devices is reflected in your child’s play.  Giving the rest of the world a glimpse into your digital habits along with what shows up your web search results.

A few years ago my sister posts this picture to Facebook with the caption “ I can’t believe our little princess will be four soon.  #shewasworking #yesthatsadoublestrollerandlaptop #girlpower. ”

The picture got 38 likes, and seven comments, one being me

“Modeling mommy…”  In reply to one comment, my sister wrote “Lol. I bet. It’s interesting to see how they perceive us. She [Jael] sees me with the double stroller, laptop, keys, cell phone, and saying I’m working” – J. Smith

More recently, I had an awesome auntie weekend with four children three of them were under seven years old and other was 17. The last question, I asked the parents before they left for the weekend was how much screen-time are the children allowed.  “The kindergartens each get two hours per weekend, and the teenager has to unplug by 1 am.” Is that all screens or just television?

You are the architect of the digital ecosystem for the child/children you interact with using media and digital tools.

Regardless of how you construct your digital ecosystem, its foundation should be built on research-based resources. While there are varying opinions, everyone agrees that we should make it a habit to unplug/disconnect from your technology, so you can refresh/rechargeDo what works for you and your environment. In my classroom, there was a docking station to charge technology when it was in use; you can create one at home too.  However, I try to use features built-in to the device, like Airplane Mode or Do Not Disturb. By far, Do Not Disturb is a favorite method because it allows me to enable the function on-demand or schedule.

Three Media Mentor Tips for getting started in media literacy education with young children:

As adults, we are the gatekeeper for how much access a child has to digital tools and the personal data of a child. With the uptick in data breaches we are forced to consider who, what, why and how data is being collected, shared and stored.

  • Be proactive about digital privacy rights. Before installing apps review what type of data access you allow. Take a moment to do a privacy and security check on your digital ecosystem.

Before we let a child play in an environment, we tend to explore the landscape and its surrounding. Do the same with digital tools, before handing it over to a child. And like at the playground sometimes you need to join in, and sometimes you can observe. Embrace the moments of observation as a window in a child’s voice.

  • It’s important to understand how and why a child is interacting with a digital tool through their lens. Ask them to teach you how to play. It’s empowering for both parties and can spark a robust conversation.

Extend your relationship into your digital world.  First, make a connection through a shared consumption experience like listening to an audiobook together.  Once trust is established, shift to co-creating, sometimes you lead, other times you need to follow your child’s lead.

  • Turn a moment into memory with media and Let your camera roll be a child’s soundtrack with collaborations from their community.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the video is priceless. Think about an old family photo and how different story people tell about it. Technology, allows us to amplify the storytelling, no longer do we have to guess when and where a picture. Video allows the people to tell their own story. Once we share it with our community, we solicit contributing narratives, via comments, reactions and call to actions.

The Internet has changed how and where we build community, but libraries continue to a community anchor.  A library card continues to magnify our exposure to different cultures and spaces while creating space to gather for shared experiences.

  • Get to know your librarian; they still serve as trusted community members of information. Many libraries are leading efforts to address the digital divide through skills programming and lending initiatives. Now libraries are interconnected, allowing our access to information and digital tools beyond what’s available at your local branch.

While where, what, how, and who we can access has evolved. At the core, it’s still human to human relationships co-existing in communities online and in real life. As citizens, we must ask why are we creating, connecting, communicating, and collaborating and how does it build our communities. Because it will dictate what digital tools future generations create.


This post originally appeared on the Erikson Institute Website