With momentum continuing to build in Delaware, there’s never been a better time to get involved in early childhood education.
We talked with Michelle Shaivitz, executive director of the Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children to learn more about advocacy, supporting the workforce, and where our state should focus next.
- Tell us a little about DEAEYC. What’s your goal and how to you work towards it?
DEAEYC is the Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children. We are an affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. We’ve been around a while, however, within the last 20 years we’ve really pushed to increase the level of quality in the classroom with kids birth through age eight.
DEAEYC serves and acts on behalf of the needs, rights and well-being of all young children and their families in Delaware.
My job as executive director is to elevate the entire state of Delaware to be aware of how important early learning really is. Not just for the children, but for the overall wellbeing of our state and our country. Early education is one of the number one deterrents for any social issues that a child will face later.
What we strive to do is focus on the whole child. Those who are with them in the classroom all day, the parents and families that surround that child, the neighborhood that these children come from—we’re looking at the whole child and the continuum of care they get all day. We do a lot of advocacy work. We have an advocacy day in Legislative Hall each year. And we try to educate our legislators and state leaders about the importance of early education when it comes to funding, but also policies and regulations and procedures.
- Tell us about the WK Kellogg project.
The State of Delaware has to realize that if a child comes to school hungry, if they’ve been through the trauma of homelessness—they’re not coming to school ready to learn.
Our goal is to get them into the classroom ready to learn. With this Kellogg grant, we were given a grant for two years at $500,000, and it is a community school model for early education centers in the City of Wilmington. We have human service representatives that are employed by DEAEYC, and they are advocates for the child and families and they meet people at the level of need—not just children and families but the people that work in the classroom.
We have two family service advocates that go onsite to early learning centers and work with families and early learning educators to secure many human services such as food, housing, Purchase of Care assistance, WIC, health care referrals, Food Stamps (SNAP) program, and more.
- We’re excited to promote the state’s recent early learning workforce survey. Why is the workforce so important?
I don’t think the average person knows that the person taking care of your child Monday through Friday in an early learning center makes less money than the person who served your coffee at Starbucks. And that’s the truth. We need to know who’s in our classrooms teaching our children, and we need to know how we can help them succeed. Because if we’re not supporting them, we’re not supporting early learning at all.
- What does DEAEYC do to support early learning educators?
DEAEYC runs programs like T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Delaware and the WAGE$ Program. T.E.A.C.H. gives scholarships to those working in early learning and wanting to advance their careers. We offer people who are just starting out in college, first-generation college goers. We give out hundreds of thousands of dollars to service hundreds of educators with scholarships throughout the year.
- What, in your mind, are some potential solutions to building up the early learning profession?
One of the things that we see is the level of professional development that is provided to our early learning workforce—the quality needs to be increased. We also have to expand different learning techniques for infants and toddlers. We also need to understand that those in the classroom are at or below the poverty level. And that’s a problem. We have to find ways to compensate those who are in the classroom, and level the playing field between our early learning teachers and our K-12 teachers. Just because you’re leaving preschool and going to kindergarten, there shouldn’t be a $20,000 or $30,000 difference.
- Is there anything from your background—either personally or professionally—that drives your focus and passion for this work?
I have been in education my entire professional life. I taught pre-school to college, and still continue to teach master’s-level courses today. I think education is the most important things we can do. What has motivated me to turn to early learning—when my husband and I spent over a decade as foster parents to some of the most needy children you can imagine.
What I learned from that experience—taking in children who were transient, who had the least amount of access to good, solid education—is that we were able to change the trajectory of their lives even in the short time they were in our homes, because we valued education, because we could focus on the child and met them at the basic level of their needs, and we knew what exactly what kind of classrooms they needed. That’s what led me to really believing the key to success for future generations—and everyone, really—is educating our youngest learners. It is the biggest return on investment you can get in this country today. Period—bar none.
- Where do you see the biggest opportunities for improvement?
There are quality opportunities for all children in Delaware, but there are large barriers. Arguably the children who have the most need have the least access. Children who are from the lower economic echelon have the least access. Middle-income families as well. One of the biggest components for Delaware is these very deep pockets of poverty, very low-income families who can take advantage of government support but still can’t access early learning. Then you have middle-class families who do not qualify for government support, and they’re stuck somewhere in-between. So there are two huge sets of populations of children who are missing out on high-quality early learning.
- As someone who’s been around Delaware for a while, can you put into words just how far we’ve come in terms of building out the early childhood system?
We’re not there yet. But we’ve gone from a system where early childhood centers were glorified babysitters and come so far. Now we understand that children that age learn things throughout the day and need quality care and formal educations in these centers. Research has demonstrated over and over again that higher school achievement and social adjustment are connected to quality early learning.
- What’s next for DEAEYC?
We’re shifting our focus to the whole child—not just children and families but also the workforce. We have a new membership structure that we’ll be rolling out this fall, plus a new website and logo coming out this fall. Lots of great new initiatives that will show people who we are, what we do, and why early childhood education is so important.
- Any final thoughts?
Just this: Good early care in education is going to require a lot of people sitting at the table making good sound judgements—and reasonably compensating our workforce in order to move things forward.