The Straus Center for Young Children and Families, a new research and policy center housed at Bank Street College of Education, will explore the core questions and concerns of educators and policymakers focused on improving the lives of young children and their families.
To celebrate the Straus Center’s launch and to begin to chart a path ahead, the College hosted a panel of four of its alumnae—early childhood thought leaders and practitioners—for a standing-room-only discussion on Monday, September 21, 2015. Bank Street has advocated research-based models in education since its inception as the Bureau of Educational Experiments in 1916. It is well positioned to play a leading role in investigating the questions educators wrestle with on a daily basis.
The Straus Center was made possible through a generous gift from Lynn Straus (GS ‘57), who has served for over 25 years as a trustee of Bank Street College of Education. In the 1960s, after graduating from Bank Street, teaching first grade, and starting a family, Straus helped to found and then direct the preschool program that became a model for the national Head Start program.
“As educators and caregivers, we must find more powerful ways to help children develop their coping skills and resilience,” Lynn said. “Now that we see the problem more clearly, we can improve our search for prevention and solutions. I turn that task over to the Straus Center with great anticipation and confidence.”
The evening’s both hopeful and practical conversation was focused on what is possible in early childhood care and education, and what stands in the way of securing those possibilities for every child and family. Dr. Lawrence Aber, an internationally known expert in child development and social policy who delivered the evening’s keynote, highlighted how much we have learned about brain development for very young children in the past decade, and yet how few public resources are invested in harnessing that peak time of development in our culture’s most vulnerable and most positively impressionable young children.
Dr. Virginia Casper led the discussion with alumnae practitioners about what works in their programs and about the obstacles they face in effectively supporting young children and their families.
Takiema Bunche Smith (GS ’97), who works as the director of the Early Education Leadership Institute housed at FirstStepNYC in Brownsville, described the high demand from early childhood leaders for supports offered through programs like hers. Leaders need research-based guidance and clarity to support their work in effectively supervising their teachers, working with their families, and managing the challenges of compliance. Yet there are few early childhood leadership programs that provide this type of support and preparation to school leaders, and very little time dedicated to supporting them with navigating these challenges.
Kristina Satchell (GS ’13), another panelist, is an educational coordinator working with immigrant children and families at Columbia University Early Head Start, located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. She struggles with how to approach the communication delays of multilingual young children. She highlighted the need for high quality assessments to better understand their development and language acquisition. “There are no tools at the moment for assessing infants and toddlers who are multilingual,” Satchell said. “They are assessed in Spanish or English, but most of them have an emerging second or third language.”
For Anat Weisenfreund (GS ’95), who directs the Parent-Child Center, a large child care and Head Start program of Community Action in a rural area of western Massachusetts, a central part of the problem in providing high quality service to more students is retaining well trained and quality staff. She regularly loses qualified teachers to preschool programs that can pay higher wages than she can offer. The results are fewer qualified teachers in Head Start and frequent teacher turnover. Weisenfreund researched how this matter affected child attendance and family engagement at her program, and, through significant effort and some political maneuvering, was able to implement wage increases in 2014 that she believes will notably improve the quality of services her center will be able to provide. She would now like to see the experiment replicated on a larger scale.
“What is the real impact on children,” Weisenfreund asked, “when they have up to five teachers in their class over the course of a year because the teachers are at or below the federal poverty level?”
Yasmin Dorrian (GS ’13), a special instructor and early interventionist who works with young children with suspected or diagnosed intellectual and developmental disabilities, described the challenge of effectively collaborating with all of the service providers—behavior therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists—who support young children with special needs. Unless a child’s family plan specifically requires providers to collaborate, there is no explicit mechanism or incentive for them to do so. Dorrian described her struggle to initiate team meetings with other independent providers on her own. This prompted many audience members to consider: How would more intentional collaboration of special education providers positively impact a child’s progress? And what systems are needed to make this possible at scale?
In his keynote, Dr. Aber, a professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, imagined the Straus Center’s potential to translate discoveries about what young children need to grow and learn into scalable, practicable recommendations to improve conditions for practitioners and the children and families they serve.
“If I understand, the mission of the Straus Center is to bridge four worlds—research, practice, policy, and advocacy,” he said. “If I know anything about Bank Street, it’s going to be involved in evidence-based advocacy. I very much share the desire to bring these four worlds together. Do not lose the largeness of your aspirations.”
Photos by Christine Butler