Yvette Sanchez Fuentes of Educare: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational…

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Yvette Sanchez Fuentes of Educare: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

Confidence also plays a key role in determining which career path someone takes. Helping children grow in confidence from a young age will help set them up for success in every field, including those categorized as STEM. The plasticity of young children’s brains cannot be overstated — they learn and grow so quickly, especially in the first five years of life. That’s why we believe building a solid foundation with technical skills is vital through social-emotional learning, self-regulation, critical thinking and more.

As a part of our interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Yvette Sanchez Fuentes.

Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, Vice President of National Policy at Start Early, leads the organization’s national strategy to advance both Start Early and Educare Learning Network policy agendas and strengthen partnerships with peer organizations and federal agency staff. A nationally recognized early childhood expert, Yvette has been influential in driving effective policy and practice change in areas of Head Start, child care, and the workforce through intentional engagement of stakeholders. Yvette has dedicated her professional career to understanding how policy, research, and implementation impact lifelong outcomes for young children and their families struggling with adversities (low-income households, migrant and seasonal farm workers, immigrant communities, American Indian and Alaska Native populations, and dual language learners). Prior to joining Start Early, she served as Director of the Office of Head Start, a Presidential Political Appointee, where she shepherded sweeping reforms, including the release of the Head Start Roadmap and the creation and rollout of the Parent, Family and Community Engagement Framework. She also steered the launch of a pilot program that allowed spending flexibility for creating additional early learning programs, which led to the implementation of Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships. Yvette began her career at Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo, Inc. She received her B.A. in liberal arts from California State Polytechnic University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Initially, I thought I wanted to be a school teacher and did teach for a short time through LA Unified. The children and families I worked with there were exceptional but also struggled with violence, housing, food insecurity and family separation. I decided to pivot to early childhood and got involved in serving farmworker children and families. That led me to Head Start. Over time, I had also done a few internships on Capitol Hill. After several years of working directly with children and families, I decided to shift and focus on policy change. This would allow me to be more effective in creating the systemic change needed to ensure children, families and communities had impactful long-term support, including educational success and financial security.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While serving as the Director of the Office of Head Start under the Obama Administration, I had to choose whether or not to close a program. The dilemma was how to keep services going for children and families, specifically when parents had to go to work and school. Head Start has many resources, and I deployed all our training and technical assistance staff from all over the country to keep the centers open. We contacted partners who stepped up and sent equipment and supplies overnight. I learned two things: first, that all you have to do is ask, and others will answer, and second, to think outside the box and go for it. That was one of the scariest decisions I had ever made, both in shutting down the program and redeploying resources and people, all in the mission to do what is best for children, families and the community.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Educare, with our national policy team’s support, we do a great deal of work supporting parent leadership through our Parent Ambassador Programs. We know that we can truly improve the education system by fully engaging with the consumers of that system. Recently, the Educare Network returned from an event in Washington, D.C., where we convened with parent leaders and staff supporting eighteen of our twenty-five schools and other partners from across the country. One purpose of this event was to meet with Congressional leaders and discuss the changes these parent ambassadors would like to see in their communities and nationwide. We believe that the Educare Learning Network is a sort of incubator for parent leadership and advocacy, which is why we are in the process of building a broader strategy around parent leadership. If we want large-scale shifts in the education system, we must continue engaging with those constituents.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I have served in this field for more than two decades, and I learn something new daily from those around me. I have had the privilege of serving at the local, state and federal levels and gained knowledge and expertise from hands-on experience. And I’m no longer afraid to push myself and others to think outside the box and to make sure that we are being inclusive of others and, most importantly, that we are listening to what families and providers are telling us they need and working towards that.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

The word I often hear parents use when discussing the U.S. education system is “crisis,” particularly because of the workforce issues. We cannot have a system if we do not have enough humans to operate the system. The context in which the education system is trying to survive is very challenging right now and probably more difficult than we’ve seen in decades. In this country, we hear a lot about physical infrastructure, but it is important that the general public also consider and take seriously the human infrastructure needed to support our schools and communities. These are the kids and generations that will be taking care of me, and many of us, when we retire, and it is critical to ensure that they have the necessary thinking skills to come up with solutions.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Wow, five things, that’s a tough one. Our schools and communities across the country are in such a crisis regarding funding, resources and support in general. As I said previously, the people are the most significant asset in the U.S. education system. Many teachers and others involved in the early childhood education sector are here out of a moral calling or passion. They aren’t here to be awarded or recognized; they are here because they want to make a change and prepare children for their futures. The people and their talents allow the system to continue.

Building on the strengths of people, the efforts that schools and communities have implemented to ensure that the voices of parents, families and caregivers are being heard and amplified, and making sure that policymakers are more informed on what’s happening on the ground to families and teachers and other staff are the best ways to improve the system’s current state. Hearing from these specific voices is where the change truly starts happening, so we must continue spotlighting and listening to families, teachers and other practitioners.

Throughout my years in the early care and education space, schools, early care and education programs have acted as a support hub for those in a school’s community. We especially saw this role become much more pronounced during COVID-19, when schools and child care programs provided essential services like food distribution and care for families of first responders. Even outside the pandemic, early care and education programs offer a sense of community that helps families and children feel more connected.

On the same note, schools, early care and education programs are filling the gap and providing support for students, children and families well outside the ABCs and 123s. For example, in my community, there are several schools where community closets are being created where students and families can go for food, clothing and other household items, and they are organized so families can access them privately. Schools serve as a support hub, with administrators, teachers and other staff supporting families outside the classroom.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

One of the biggest challenges in the US education system right now is the economic disparity and racist, unequal housing practices that exist. We have set ourselves up to have an extremely bifurcated system, funding schools based on tax revenues. We have all seen it and heard it: schools in low-income communities and black, brown and indigenous communities receive less funding and struggle to provide the comprehensive services that families deserve, while high-income and primarily white communities are well-funded and even include extracurricular activities like music and sports. Early care and education programs like Head Start are critical to helping close the opportunity gap by ensuring that all of our children, especially our most vulnerable, receive the care and education they deserve.

I said it before and I will say it again, people. Another area of the education system that needs to be addressed is the workforce. The workforce issues have two predominant causes, which are 1) pay and 2) the inability of those publicly or privately funded systems to compete with other industries. There are fewer and fewer people entering the early care and education system because the salary potential over the lifespan is simply not competitive.

Another variable in the number of people leaving and the reduced number of people entering the field has to do with the safety in our schools. Teachers and those who work in schools know they are being targeted by gun violence, and there is inadequate support to keep them safe. We hear that in our local communities and from our friends who are educators, but, as we have seen, it has not matriculated its way up into the policy. Most people who entered education did not expect to have these security concerns. We must address these issues to see any light on the horizon, get back on track, and let our teachers teach our kids.

We must also prioritize and reframe how we view early care and education in this country. Historically, early care and education have been highly undervalued, and people do not see its critical nature in society. I think that has certainly come into play in a broad sense, but it also feeds into the other issues I’ve already mentioned. We need to fund the early years as a public good so that children and families have the resources and support they need and deserve from birth through college.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

While substantial efforts to engage young people in STEM have been prevalent in the past few years, there is always room for improvement. One way to improve: start early! We know that hands-on activities in everyday learning build curiosity in young children. This will allow them to explore, experiment and create — all essential for proper development. It also encourages critical thinking and self-directed learning, where the child must think independently and learn to solve problems.

We know that children are born natural scientists in early care and education! In programs across the country, STEM occurs naturally in the everyday activities that young children and families are exposed to in their classrooms and programs. We know that when you let young children and their families and students explore and ask questions, they learn critical skills that will support their development and future educational success.

Through STEM education, we can continue to create opportunities to support young children and students in building a knowledge base that they can continue to build on to support their educational success.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

The government has been committed to developing STEM educators and the US education system, along with institutions of higher education that have expanded programs and resources specifically related to STEM for girls and women. Diversity in STEM and everyday life brings various ideas, experiences and solutions that will, hopefully, meet the needs of a changing society but most importantly, bring educational success and economic security to individuals.

As data tells us, early skills related to STEM provide a strong foundation for kindergarten readiness and overall future school success. At Educare, we work to provide young children of all genders the experience and tools they need for kindergarten and beyond.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Similar to my answer above, substantial efforts to engage young people in STEM have been prevalent in the past few years, but there is always room for improvement. Women often remain underrepresented in STEM-related fields, so it is essential to start exposure to these subjects from an early age.

We can increase women’s and girls’ STEM engagement in many ways. Math skills are often integral to success in these fields, so having the opportunity to develop these skills early in life is ideal. With the Educare model, our teachers emphasize the equal importance of developing children’s pre-literacy and early math skills, in addition to and alongside their social-emotional skills.

Confidence also plays a key role in determining which career path someone takes. Helping children grow in confidence from a young age will help set them up for success in every field, including those categorized as STEM. The plasticity of young children’s brains cannot be overstated — they learn and grow so quickly, especially in the first five years of life. That’s why we believe building a solid foundation with technical skills is vital through social-emotional learning, self-regulation, critical thinking and more.

Part of that well-rounded development, especially as it relates to STEM, comes from encouraging children to play with various types of toys, take things apart and put them back together, play games that involve fitting objects into different spaces, draw, and work with their hands. These other methods and modalities of play and learning are basic, fun ways to help nurture a child’s development and potentially provide early access to STEM. So, as you can see, it might look like kids are “just playing,” but they are learning through play.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

One of our core focuses at Educare is starting education from birth. The first five years of a child’s life make a huge difference in their overall development and can shape the course of their future. If I had the power, I would fund early care and education as a public good so that children and families can access it as they choose.

Simply put, the money currently allocated to the US education system is insufficient. It must be properly funded if we want a sustainable system with adequate staff, supplies and resources. Right now, we don’t provide adequate support for kids to start with a strong foundation in this country. Allocating more funds to our children’s earliest years of life and learning can make a massive difference in this country. It all goes back to the need to reframe how we view early care and education’s role in society.

In conversations with parents particularly, there’s also continued demand to improve and work towards better, more equitable services for children with disabilities. The process of being identified and receiving support is different everywhere, even from neighborhood to neighborhood. Creating a more uniform process that can meet the needs of any child with a disability is something I would work towards improving.

On the topic of parents and families, we need to fix paid family leave. We have family leave federally determined, and everyone is entitled to it, but it isn’t actually paid, which means it doesn’t exist. Parents and caregivers should be able to stay home to care for their children and not fear losing their job. We must consider two-generation practices and policies supporting adults and children together.

Finally, we need to change how we determine who is eligible for what services. Currently, federal poverty guidelines are the same throughout the country and don’t consider the differences in the cost of living from one geographic area to the next. There are families across this country struggling and having to decide between groceries, medicine or even paying for that music class or sports team that we know is so important to the overall well-being of our children. Yet, they are not technically meeting the qualifications for needed support. We need to take a hard look at ensuring families and communities get the support they need in the best way for them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Si Se Puede” from farmworker and civil rights leaders Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez — because at the end of the day, anything is possible if we are willing to try and work for it.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can keep up with Educare’s work by visiting https://www.educareschools.org/ or following us on our twitter (@EducareSchools), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/educarenetwork) and our YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/educareschools)

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Yvette Sanchez Fuentes of Educare: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.