Elusive Equity: Reeshemah Brightley’s Hard Questions for Bill de Blasio

We talk ad nauseam about quality and equity in early care and education.  How do we get there? The answers elude us, in spite of our good intentions, leaving young children in a precarious state.  The list of our sins is long—and dispiriting. Childrearing has now achieved the status of luxury item in the United States. Education is seen as expenditure not investment. We tolerate child-poverty rates that put us to shame on the world’s social-justice index. The hard, essential work of caregiving and nurturing appear nowhere on the ledger sheets for our GDP.

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For Reeshemah Brightley, who lives in Harlem, one of New York City’s rapidly gentrifying but underserved communities, the quest for quality and equity defines her life as a parent, early childhood educator, and social entrepreneur. A board member of the New York City Association for the Education of Young Children, she is the co-founder of Urban Kids Journeys and Vice President of Operations of Sabree Education Services, where she trains childcare providers working with infants and toddler and co-facilitates classes for parents.  She is also the co-creator of the First 2000Days NY™ campaign and writer for Sabree’s parent blog.

The mother of a first grader, Brightley recounts here the circumstances of her quest for a high-quality preschool and her son’s experience as Bill de Blasio’s ambitious universal prekindergarten initiative was getting underway.  She poses some hard questions to the mayor, as he expands the program, this September, to the first cohort of three-year-olds.

 

By Reeshemah Brightley

When you have a child, the questions are endless. You start to tackle them. Where should we live? Will my child have many children to play with? Is this the nicer playground? Which preschool is best?

The last question has so many moving parts. It is most challenging to answer when you live, as I do, in a low-income, underserved community like Harlem. You may tell yourself that Harlem is gentrified, that a good preschool shouldn’t be hard to find. Well, the reality is different.  While our houses may be spruced up, our streets vibrant and bustling, school choice is limited.  And the options that do exist are subpar.

Most parents want a center near their home or office. How many children are in the class? Are the teachers sensitive, caring, well-trained, and engaging? Is the curriculum based on rich exploration, play, and children’s interests and natural curiosity? You’ll want to know if your child will develop the skills he needs to move to the next level.  Can you detect evidence of racial bias in the classroom, among the staff, or families? What type of enrichment programs exist within the school?

I began the search for preschool for my son, Ajani, a year prior to admission. I had to start early because I knew the selections in Harlem were limited. I had taught Ajani at home, laying the foundation for his cognitive, social, and emotional skills. He enjoyed playing, and had options for different activities and developmentally appropriate toys. We had fun doing puzzles and reading together. For me, it was extremely important to find a preschool center with a philosophy incorporating social and emotional development and play. I also wanted to be part of a community that valued parent engagement.

In September of 2015, as the second year of New York City’s universal preschool initiative began, Ajani entered prekindergarten at a bilingual Montessori school outside my immediate neighborhood—a 15-minute subway ride away. The environment seemed calm, the staff friendly. There were few Black families.

Then I began to notice a few disturbing things: I’d call them red flags.  Some fell into the category of basic health and safety.  The carpet and floor were dirty, the garbage can within the classroom was very large and had no lid. The toilet within the classroom smelled of urine.  The children’s meals were ordered from Fresh Direct and warmed daily in the microwave.

I also noticed that the after-school staff were resorting to time-out, an outdated practice that isolates children when they act out. The strategy is punitive, changing the physical structure of the brain—to the detriment of children’s development—according to Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine. They experience time-out as rejection at a time when they most need help for all the “big” feelings that are driving their behavior.

When children misbehave—“a cry for help in calming down, and a bid for connection,” as Siegel says—parents and teachers should be responsive, and seize the opportunity to help them pause and reflect on their feelings, redirecting  attention to another area of activity, or asking if a moment alone might be helpful.

Ajani’s preschool was in the midst of an administrative shake-up. The director had left, a lead teacher had assumed her position, and the school’s founder was battling a health crisis.  Concerned, I spoke to the administrators, who nodded in agreement, yet made no changes. I then talked with the other parents in the community. We aired our grievances, created a plan, and met with the administrators.

We offered to volunteer to help clean, do administrative work, repair the phone lines, assist with after-school care and meal preparation, and create classroom committees.  Unfortunately, with the founder out of commission, the administrators were overwhelmed and defensive.

A person with no experience in early childhood education was now at the helm of the school. While this person was open to the ideas and recommendations of parents, her hands were tied; the final decision rested with the school’s founders. They were not eager to make the necessary changes—even after parents began to contact the support center for the city’s universal prekindergarten program and the health department. Ultimately, the center, cited for a number of violations, was closed by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Once the center closed, in December of 2015, I was back to square one.  Ajani finished out his first year at a new preschool center 45 minutes away from our home, not far from Wall Street, at Manhattan’s most southern tip.

This September, as New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, expands his historic prekindergarten initiative to three-year-olds, we have an opportunity to ensure that certain key elements are in place. I have a new set of questions: Will the quality of Ajani’s experience downtown be reflected in the preschools of underserved communities? Who will facilitate the training of child care staff on the developmental needs of a 3-year old? What supports will be in place for families?

In order for the mayor’s latest initiative to succeed, all the stakeholders must be involved in the conversation, one that started more than 20 years ago. Now it is time for parents, early childhood educators, and policymakers to join together at the table.  To produce the next generation of stellar citizens, we must work to ensure the highest level of quality and recognize the singular importance of play in children’s learning and development.  Then, and only then, will we make a dent in eradicating inequality, and creating diversity and equity for all children.

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