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

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:

** If you would like to participate in Temple University’s event on October 19th, please email 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”