Aspen Institute’s Newest Ascend Fellows Represent a Tightening Focus on Early Childhood

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This week, the Aspen Institute announced its 2022 Ascend fellows, a cohort of 22 individuals hailing from a range of disciplines including medicine, research, entrepreneurship, government and policy, and nonprofit leadership and advocacy.

Their respective fields may vary widely, but what unites this particular group—on the 10-year anniversary since the fellowship was first launched—is their commitment to transforming early childhood education. The fellowship has always been about investing in leaders from various sectors that impact children, families and communities, but this is the first year that the fellowship is focused on our nation’s youngest children and their families. And moving forward, it will maintain that focus for every other year of the fellowship.

“This year, we’re really building on what we’ve learned and have done before,” says Anne Mosle, founder and executive director of Ascend and vice president of the Aspen Institute, in an interview. “We’re tightening our focus and shining an extremely bright light on families and children at their earliest years—really the prenatal to age 3 space.”

The fellows, who include Black, Indigenous and Latinx leaders of color, bring rich lived experiences and expertise, Mosle adds. They will meet in person four times over the next 18 months to share ideas and learn from one another—beginning next week, with an initial gathering in Aspen, Colorado.

EdSurge spoke with a handful of the 2022 Ascend fellows to learn more about their backgrounds, how they came to be involved in the field of early childhood, and what issues they view as most urgent for this cohort to tackle. Meet four of them below.

Blythe Keeler Robinson

Headshot of Blythe Keeler Robinson

Blythe Keeler Robinson remembers her own early years vividly. She recalls the early learning program she attended—Westmore Day Nursery—and can tick off the names of the teachers who cared for her: Ms. Donna, Ms. Brenda, Ms. Lucille. She can describe where she ate, what the nap room looked like, the types of activities she participated in (painting, planting, drawing).

Even before Robinson decided to work in early childhood education, back when she was studying government and politics and, later, attending law school, she knew she’d had a defining early learning experience. She attributes her love for learning and reading, and her natural curiosity, to her time at Westmore.

“It completely shaped me,” says Robinson, who is now president and CEO of Sheltering Arms Early Education and Family Centers, which serves 2,300 children at 13 centers across metro Atlanta.

Robinson counts Sheltering Arms among the likes of Spelman College, Morehouse College and Coca Cola—all storied institutions in Atlanta. Sheltering Arms was founded in 1888, making it one of Georgia’s oldest nonprofits.

But like so many early childhood providers in the last couple of years, Sheltering Arms has struggled to recruit and retain staff, when their competitors—not school districts, but rather Target and Starbucks, she says—are able to pay considerably more.

“We’re in a crisis around teachers,” Robinson says of the early childhood sector. “A lot of people talk about the issue of hiring. It’s not an issue. It’s a crisis.”

After shouldering through the worst of the pandemic, Robinson says she is eager to join the other Ascend fellows in Aspen next week, to step back and reflect on her own work and the work of the organization she leads. She hopes to learn from and absorb ideas from her peers that she can bring back to Sheltering Arms, not only to raise the bar on quality, but also to solve elemental problems such as staffing and funding.

“This is a pivotal moment for early childhood education,” Robinson notes. “We must invest. We must pay attention. We must think differently about what the role of early childhood is in our society and the fabric of our nation.”

Mary Alice Cohen

Headshot of Mary Alice Cohen

With hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funding to spend, bipartisan support and action, a new department devoted to the field, and statewide universal preschool slated to launch in 2023, Colorado is becoming one of the foremost states for early childhood education in the country.

Mary Alice Cohen, who describes these conditions as marking a “truly transformative period” in Colorado, is part of the team that will guide the state through this critical time. Cohen is the deputy executive director of Colorado’s new Department of Early Childhood (so new, in fact, that Cohen measures its existence in days. It was officially launched on July 1.)

“The vision of the new department is that all children are healthy, valued and thriving in our state,” Cohen explains, adding that the department is also focused on the well-being of early childhood professionals.

Cohen and her colleagues at the department have the expressed goal of making Colorado the best place in the nation to raise babies. But there is much work to do to get there.

“Our workforce took such a hit,” she says.

The state is employing a number of strategies to try to retain existing early childhood educators while also building a pipeline of new ones.

The Colorado Department of Early Childhood is investing $271 million of federal stimulus funds to stabilize child care program operators and the early childhood workforce. As of June, more than 3,500 programs had been awarded grants, with $166 million toward stabilization and $41 million to the workforce, wired directly into providers’ accounts, Cohen notes.

Some providers are offering new benefits to existing employees, such as mental health counseling. Others are implementing retention bonuses.

For those who are considering entering the field, Colorado is offering incentives such as free professional development to get folks trained and up to speed, as well as $5,000 bonuses after they become licensed.

The reality, Cohen says, is that 400,000 children aged 5 and under live in Colorado, and yet there are only 153,000 slots at licensed child care programs. “So we’re doing everything we can to build our workforce, increase licensing capacity, and support family, friend and neighbor care,” she says. “You have to go where children are being cared for.”

As she meets and learns from other Ascend fellows over the next year-and-a-half, Cohen believes Colorado is uniquely positioned—thanks to a governor and state legislators who support early childhood investments—to make “rapid system changes,” particularly around diversity, equity and inclusion.

Tonja Rucker

Headshot of Tonja Rucker

Tonja Rucker’s entry into early childhood education was through some work she did during graduate school with Head Start, the federally funded program for children from low-income families.

Her time at Head Start underscored how important it is to give children a “great start in life,” and soon after that experience, she says, “I knew I wanted to be in this space.”

Rucker taught in the classroom for a couple of years, then joined the city of Baltimore as its Head Start coordinator, launching her career at the intersection of early childhood and local government.

For the last 15 years, Rucker has worked at the National League of Cities (NLC), a national advocacy organization with more than 19,000 members ranging from large cities such as New York to small towns and villages across the country. Today, she is the director for early childhood success in the NLC’s Institute for Youth Education and Families, where she has worked at the community level to develop programs, policies and practices in the interest of kids and families.

“It’s opened my eyes to the importance of local government,” Rucker says. “I think at the federal level, so much can be done—and at the state level, too. But the local level is where the rubber meets the road. If we’re looking for solutions and innovations, those things happen locally.”

Rucker has heard from a number of city officials that the condition of the early childhood workforce is top of mind as they think about recovering from the pandemic. “It’s critical in terms of what’s happening with child care,” she says, alluding to how a lack of child care options for U.S. employees is a key business challenge.

Echoing the workforce woes expressed by other Ascend fellows, Rucker asks, “What is this fall going to look like? When the big box store a mile away is paying more than you can get at the child care center, how can you hold onto or retain staff?”

Early childhood educators are tired and burned out from the onslaught of changes since early 2020. But so are the elected officials Rucker works with. And so is she.

“I am fatigued,” she admits. “The day to day is just fast and furious.”

But she says this fellowship “couldn’t come at a better time.”

“Over the course of 18 months, I get to spend some time with great thinkers who are in a similar space,” she says, “and then learn things I can bring back to NLC.”

Deana Around Him

Headshot of Deana Around Him

What if a child’s toothache prevented her from showing up to school ready to learn?

It’s the type of question Deana Around Him considers in her work. Maybe the toothache becomes a problem on Saturday, but the child can’t get to a health care provider until she returns to school on Monday. How much classroom time is lost? And more importantly, how does this health issue impact the child’s ability to sit in class and listen and absorb?

Around Him, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation with experience as a high school science teacher on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and as a researcher with a focus on maternal and child health, is interested in the links between health, well-being and education, particularly for American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

She explores those connections in her roles as a senior research scientist at the nonprofit Child Trends, where she is growing the organization’s work related to Indigenous children and families; as a member of the leadership team for the Tribal Early Childhood Research Center, based in Colorado and funded by the federal Administration for Children and Families; and as a co-investigator for a National Institutes of Health-funded research program, examining the links between prenatal exposure to substances such as alcohol and tobacco and birth outcomes.

Now, she will get to ask those questions as an Ascend fellow, too (and yes, she acknowledges there was already a lot on her plate).

“I’m passionate about the work I do,” Around Him says. “It’s hard to draw lines between work and home life sometimes. I spend all day thinking about work things, but in my home life I’m trying to implement them. I have a young child, school-aged. It motivates me to continue the work. I want him to have access to things I didn’t have in my early years. So I find time. It’s nice when there’s overlap.”

Around Him says the most urgent issue in her work is “creating opportunities for children to access culture [and] language,” which she says are critical to helping them develop a strong identity.

“Our languages are quickly becoming in danger of being lost,” Around Him says. “With Covid, we’ve lost so many of our elders who are libraries of language and cultural information. So we need our young children to have strong identities and know who they are throughout the life course—and the early learning environment is the place to do that.”

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