Listening Closely to the City’s “Nation Builders”

What a gift to be able to be a part of the third annual DC Early Educator Experience (DC Early EdX) during the month of April, honoring and celebrating the talented early childhood professionals who care for the District’s young children. Overall more than 1,300 early childhood educators participated in the event — virtually, in-person or both. Thank you for everything you do every day for the young people in your care.

We at the Bainum Family Foundation are so honored to be a trusted partner in ensuring that early childhood educators get the resources they need to make the ideal real — high-quality education and care for every child. 

The only way that will happen is if we listen more closely to those closest to the children — teachers, staff, administrators, and parents. And not just listen, but act on what we hear. All of us in positions of power and influence — whether it is foundation leaders such as myself or local and federal policymakers — need to be much more willing to center the experiences of the field as our North Star. 

To that end, here is some of what I heard from you during the culminating in-person gathering on April 28.

I was moved by keynote speaker Wanda Durant’s honest, heartfelt and sometimes funny memories of raising two young sons as a single mom. Anthony, the oldest who liked poetry, songs and plays; Kevin, the quiet younger brother who liked arts, meteorology, music, and of course, basketball. Like many families, Wanda struggled to find affordable, quality and accessible early childhood education for her children. When she did, it had a positive impact on both her and her children.  “At the time, I wasn’t aware of the importance of early childhood education. I just wanted a safe environment so I could go to work,” she recalled. “Thank you for all that you do.”

I was inspired by La Shada Ham-Campbell, Jannice Wright, Raul Echevarria, and Moses Sansbury, who discussed the importance of degrees and credentials. As Raul said, “A degree gives respect. It transitions you from being perceived as a babysitter to being valued as an educator.” Raul also made a case for apprenticeships as a more accessible pathway. As La Shada and others said, we need to recognize work experience when awarding credits (like credit for prior learning); approaches such as onsite lab schools could help ensure that classroom learning is supplemented with hands-on experiences. Let’s commit to identifying talent early, in middle and high school, and then make the case for the profession: “Where else can you play all day, get hugs, and get paid?” asked moderator Maurice Sykes. Amen.

And finally, I learned so much about the important role of a high-quality early literacy curriculum from Shirley Cox, Marcella “Marti” Vaughn-Smith, Willian Kuehnle, and Angela Hamilton. Not surprisingly, books are the center of these talented educators’ classrooms. I was especially impressed by how William went above and beyond–taking note of his students’ individual interests and then going to the local library and checking out relevant books for them. And I loved how all the panelists intentionally used rich, high-level vocabulary to challenge even the youngest students. Toddlers using terms like “evaporation” to describe a spill is impressive. “The children absorb everything you say,” said one speaker. Indeed they do.

We will continue to do our best to absorb everything you in the field say. DC Early EdX and WeVision EarlyEd are tools we will use to listen and prioritize our funding. You who are doing the work every day are the real experts. As Emcee Olubunkola “Bukky” Ojeifo said in kicking off the in-person event, “We want to make sure you are seen, heard, valued, and celebrated.” Yes.

We will follow your lead in making Washington, D.C. the model for every other community in the country.