Q&A: How Does Expanded Pre-K Impact Latinos in NYC? Leah Van Halsema of UnidosUS Affiliate Committee for Hispanic Children and Families Explains

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The push for expanded and enhanced pre-K is trending in many parts of the United States, and it’s something UnidosUS is following closely  because of the significance for the nation’s large and rapidly growing number of Latino children and families, as well as the childcare and education staff who serve them. About one of every five members of the ECE workforce are Latinas. New York is one of the states working on an intensive pre-K expansion. In fact, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has doubled the state’s early childhood services by increasing the number of full-day pre-k seats and adding three-year-olds to pre-k classrooms. And unsurprisingly, the biggest expansion is taking place in New York City, a city with a diverse child, teacher, and caregiver population. Progress Report sat down with Leah Van Halsema, director of the Early Childhood Care and Education Institute at the UnidosUS Affiliate Committee for Hispanic Children and Families (CHCF) to learn what it takes to serve that population.

Leah Van Halsema, director of the Early Childhood Care Education Institute at New York’s Committee for Hispanic Children and Families (CHCF). Photo by Julienne Gage.

Q: Working in the areas of early childhood development, youth development, and policy and advocacy, CHCF has spent decades serving Latinos of all ages. But one of the most vulnerable of those groups are the very young children and the folks who teach and care for them. Tell us what you do at the Early Care and Education Institute to address that.

A: We work with home-based child care providers throughout the city of New York’s five boroughs. Generally, children ages birth through kindergarten are served in either child care centers or home-based programs, both state licensed child care programs usually administered through the Department of Health. Here in the city, we make things extra special, because we have universal pre-K that’s been rolling out of the last two years through an initiative of Mayor Bill de Blasio. We also have begun a three-K push in the city, and the reason those are so significant is that both universal pre-K and three-K bring younger and younger children into the Department of Education at the city level. Instead of being served through center-based or home-based programs, children who are in universal pre-K or three-K are served in the same system that serves K-12. The Department of Education has never worked with four-year-olds or three-year-olds in this way, so there’s the establishment of an entire infrastructure. Suddenly all these systems that have never spoken to each other have to talk all the time. It has been a really big watershed moment for the early education work.

Q: So that must expand interest in what goes on in the home-based programs, how they operate, and how their instructors are trained and supported—but for your organization, this is kind of old hat.

A: These programs are open for 10 hours a day, five days a week, so by dint of being in the home caring for children, a lot of the providers we serve, the vast majority, don’t have the opportunity to interact with each other in a professional capacity, or, really, to interact with much professional development outside of what they might be receiving through affiliation with a child care network, or affiliation with an agency like ours that provides training and professional involvement. So, what we do, both on our own and in partnership with others, is try to provide as many opportunities with quality improvement for the programming, but also for personal development and connection between providers, and connecting providers with the resources that are available in the city.

All of the online materials are in English, and all of the printed materials go out first in English and then in Spanish three or four weeks later. Starting with applications, moving through all the required trainings and into coaching, is provide high quality Spanish support to these professionals so that providers are able to make decisions that are the highest quality for their business and the children and families that they serve. We walk folks through the application process from beginning through licensure, then we provide grants to set up the program in the provider’s home.

In addition to the coaching, training, technical assistance, we provide on-the-spot phone technical assistance, so if the provider needs to know where to get a new fire extinguisher, what number to call for XYZ, they can give us a call. And then we also have an annual child care provider conference. So, we provide the only city-wide Spanish-speaking professional conference for home-based childcare providers.

A family child care provider supported by the UnidosUS Affiliate Committee for Hispanic Children and Families poses in her home-based center.

Q: So, what does a proper home-based care location look like?

A: There are lots of thoughts on that, but there’s general consensus that there need to be distinct areas for free play, for dramatic play, materials in place for blocks, for reading in a text-rich environment. The set-up and environment of a space makes a huge difference, especially in home-based child care, because one of the unique things about this sort of early education setting is that mixed-age groups are all thrown in with one another. So, this actually provides a huge benefit to families, but it also can provide a lot of challenges to an educator looking to support literacy for an infant, while also helping a five or six-year-old with homework, while also taking care of and facilitating play with a lot of toddlers in the same program. We help set up the space. In fact, we provide a grant for that, and we provide referrals for any other service a provider might need. For example, we partner with Acción, a micro-lender serving predominantly Spanish-speaking folks and folks of color looking to establish their own businesses by providing low-interest loans to people without credit scores or with very low credit scores, and they’re relationship-based.

Q: Do you think the home-based programs get the attention they deserve?

There’s always a stance with home-based child care and education in general between the idea of care versus education, between viewing these educators as educators or babysitters, and that’s been a huge advocacy push for us and others in this sector in the past because now early education is in vogue, and everybody’s paying attention to it, but, it’s been as important as it is now forever. We are excited that there is so much attention being paid to babies and toddlers and their needs, but we also find ourselves fighting for the very things that make the sector unique.

We know that center-based is a sector that just as worthy of investment and has just as much need, but, in some ways, is better set to receive funding and resources because it looks more familiar to folks. It looks brighter and shinier and tends to be more acceptable in the public eye, when we know that actually the vast majority of babies and toddlers are being taken care of in home-based settings. And to provide truly culturally responsive and linguistically responsive care, those things are really happening in home-based sites. So, given our history of working with Latinos across the five boroughs and the city, home-based child care has always been the no-brainer for us at CHCF. We see providers doing amazing work, we want to support them. There are home-based providers who have been taking care of generations of the same family located within the communities that they serve, and those are truly powerful sites for transformation and change that we believe in.

Q: There has been a push at the federal and state level to require an associate degree or even a bachelor’s to become a licensed child development associate. How does this affect your work?

A: It’s complicated, right? If it was as simple as saying, as waving a magic wand and saying, yes, everybody should have a bachelor’s degree, that would be fantastic. But when we talk about education, adult education, we talk about access, right? We talk about opportunity. And then the shadow side of that is we talk about, we don’t talk about the barriers to entry for women, for women of color, for folks who speak languages other than English. And, it’s fascinating because when we talk about education in our country, there is a deep, reflexive reaction to standardizing everything. And sometimes when we slap a standard onto something, we’re missing the crucial context and the magic of a professional caregiver and educator who knows that children are going to be thriving at their highest if they’re playing.

We know that one of the most crucial, if not the most crucial piece, the linchpin of early childhood development, is a warm, consistent, caring relationship with the adults in that baby or toddler’s life. How can you quantify that with a bachelor’s or master’s degree or with a PhD? The unintended damage, or the unintended consequences, can play out in a way that is actually pretty discriminatory against those that have been doing the work at high quality for a really long time. When you put a magnifying glass up to who’s doing that work, you’re seeing that that push for standardization leaves women of color behind, and it leaves those that don’t speak English as their first language behind at the expense of quality work.

New York City family child care providers at a training workshop sponsored by UnidosUS Affiliate Committee for Hispanic Children and Families.

Q: And certainly, this isn’t the first time early childhood education and care has been framed as a civil rights issue. Would you say it comes in waves?

A: It does seem to go in these 35-year cycles. That was the whole purpose of Early Head Start, and Head Start was to say, oh, this starts at birth, this starts with parents, this starts with the care and education that’s afforded to young babies and children. And it’s true, that when babies and families with young children have access to holistic support and high-quality education, they thrive. Those dividends, the dividends on early education investment have been clear forever. But it seems to go in cycles, depending on the political administration, depending on what’s going on with high school graduation rates, depending on what’s going on with the high school job market.

This is the first time it feels like home-based child care is being brought into the mix in this way, which I think in some ways is a great opportunity to talk about the value of the sector. But it is also highlighting the need for us all to collaborate and really to talk with some savvy about what all it is that we’re proposing.



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