Re-imagining the Future of Early Childhood Education

JP leaders leverage the COVID-19 pandemic to further their vision and deepen their learning partnerships with moms.

Rebecca Putzer and Crystal Ward co-lead Jeremiah Program’s Child Development Center task force. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the task force sprang into action to create a set of distance learning modules mothers could use to teach their children at home with support from JP teachers. The pandemic accelerated work the task force had already been doing to reimagine what early childhood education could look like across all Jeremiah campuses to establish equitable and high-quality programming and materials families can access in a variety of settings.

Tell us about each of your roles at Jeremiah Program. 

Crystal: I have started working with Jeremiah for the last couple of months as an education consultant. I’ve spent my career in education as a middle school teacher, as an elementary school founder, and then—for the last six years or so—I’ve done leadership development and new school design. The work that I’m leading with the Child Development Center (CDC) task force and all of the managers and directors is thinking about how we take what has been really a regional approach (we focus on our children and the inner workings of what’s happening in St. Paul, for example) and, instead, looking at [Jeremiah Program] as a small school district. We should be cascading efforts—taking all of the CDCs across the Jeremiah program and thinking about ways in which we can share best practices and knowledge as well as capacity across all of our different sites to ensure all children are getting top-quality materials and guidance from their teachers. Even before COVID, the goal of my work with the task force was to think about creating this network of schools, but also thinking about the vision for 2020 and beyond of how Jeremiah is going to re-imagine early childhood to be world-class in the nation. 

Rebecca: I’ve been at Jeremiah for about 13 and a half years and in my current role for about six as the director of coordinated family services. In that role, I work with our coaching teams that are working one-on-one with the moms and also our Child Development Centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I float between the two campuses: I have a firsthand account of what’s happening with our moms in terms of goals and challenges and things that they’re working on, and then also with our teachers and our center managers. Essentially, my role is to help Crystal on the ground with our early childhood programming, as well as the collaboration across Jeremiah’s other components. As a holistic program, what we can do in partnership with our moms and children? How do we leverage all the talent and resources we have across all of our campuses for the betterment of all Jeremiah families?

How was the first round of virtual learning modules created? 

Crystal: It was really quick actually. Rebecca had a huge hand in polishing those off and making sure that they looked really clean for our families. We used that as our initial template that we’re now revising to give to teachers to then do planning over the course of the next 10 weeks or so so that kids have resources through the end of June.

In terms of planning, we asked, “What are we hearing from our moms? What is a good thing for us to provide to ensure that our kids have something and that they’re hearing from their teachers as well?”

We decided on two major things. One is that teachers are going to check in with their students weekly and hone that connection so that families can ask teachers any questions they might need to ask about some of the content. The second was that we wanted to provide developmentally appropriate materials to children from zero to five. We have different age bands with appropriate age-level activities: for our infants, there are sensory activities, and then for our oldest preschoolers, there’s writing.

For our first week, we honed the expertise of all of our managers and some of the teachers to come up with what would be good for kids to do each week. We also understood that this is a really tough time; families may use these resources, or they may feel like, “I’ve got this under control. We have a rhythm,” versus other moms who are on the spectrum of saying, “I need restructure, I need help.” We wanted to be able to hit a note across the board of where people are at and the needs they have.

Their interactions with school should be roughly 45 minutes. I’m just giving general guidance so that our teachers can take our initial plans and run with them. We’re doing a sprint over the next three to four weeks to have two months of plans completed. We’ll share them across all Jeremiah regions, including the nonresidential sites in Boston and New York City.

We’ve gotten a lot of really good feedback so far. We’re going to start learning how families are feeling about them here shortly. We’re releasing weekly, but we’re planning in, in two-week chunks. This week, two regions are planning for the next two weeks, so we’re not doing it on a week-by-week basis. We want to accelerate it so that we can get the plans out of the way and start utilizing our teachers and the visioning for what Jeremiah Program will be in the future.

Rebecca: It has been a sprint, as Crystal said. One guiding piece: We did use the Early Childhood Indicators of Progress, which helped us nail down and solidify our highest priority development areas for each age group. Our intention was to help build parent awareness surrounding all of the learning happening already with their children each and every day.  A lot of it is appropriate expectations for early childhood education because much of the day in early childhood classrooms includes free play and social-emotional [learning]. We are attempting to get our parents information and support to alleviate additional stress or unrealistic expectations. You don’t have to sit with your child for eight hours a day and do structured activities. That’s not what it’s about. And that’s not what early childhood education looks like in the classroom either. It’s just bridging the home and classroom life for children. Luckily, at Jeremiah, we’ve been doing that all along for our families, even pre-COVID, as part of our wrap-around services and two-generation model. This is just a whole other layer. 

Crystal: We’ve also been thoughtful about what families already have at the ready for kids, so the activities are stuff like fill the bathtub and throw toys in there, right? And like do things like that with our youngest kids. Because of the additional layer of support of having moms at residences, we know what resources they have. Like everybody has a tub, for example. Everybody can go downstairs and get materials from the CDC to do construction or cutting or mixing of different dyes and things like that. Except for the small population of community families, we’re able to ensure that they have the resources that they need.

What is the plan for incorporating feedback?

Crystal: We have a plan to send out a survey, but also ask our teachers, “How’s it going?” Each week, teachers are going to send a roll-up to their managers and directors of what’s happening with each child and the requests from moms. We understood that this has had to happen very quickly. As a designer, it’s counter to what I know is good practice: to not involve the end user in our design. We would have loved to have moms on the task force initially to help us design these things, but with COVID and the crisis and the pandemic, that additional ask of them was something that we were trying to tread lightly on. What we really want our moms to do is just tell us, “What do you need?” A lot of them are in survival mode, and so asking them to spend two hours a week helping us felt insensitive.

And so instead, what we plan to do is ask moms, “We’re going to start designing what the future of early childhood looks like. For those of you that have the capacity and are interested, we want you to join our design teams.” And if they can’t join, what we’re going to do is provide small touchpoints for them to be able to give feedback along the way so that it’s truly informed by our families and not just from the brains of people who aren’t living and breathing the experience of our moms and kids.

Are you exclusively sharing these modules with Jeremiah Program moms or are you releasing them to a wider audience?

Crystal: We’ve already started sharing them with people who are asking. A couple of my friends have young children, but their daycares are not providing anything, and I’ve shared the plans with them and they’re really excited about it. Initial feedback is really strong. I think it would be something for us to think about how we might even be able to put this on our website and have people come access the resources because, at this point, it’s really about everybody. Teachers are always open to share their resources, and as a community of practice, we really want to be open. I think that’s something that we could discuss. There could be a plan to share it in a more formalized way. 

How did you approach blending academics with social-emotional learning? 

Rebecca: Going forward, each week we’ll have a theme to help us not duplicate the same stuff and also keeps children engaged. But the social-emotional part is really challenging, and one attempt at helping is a parent guide that we are creating. It will hopefully help with support related to, “How do you talk to your children about what’s happening now?” This stuff isn’t necessarily written into early childhood education materials, but it’s situational and it’s happening now. Questions would also be happening if children were in classrooms as teachers are talking about current events and teaching children about the things that are happening around them. So, a lot of the social-emotional content is going to come through in the packet of materials as questions parents or caregivers could be asking their children, different things they could try to talk about in terms of topics. Mostly encouraging a dialogue with their children and being open to questions, talking through feelings, and acknowledging that this is a tough time for many people. 

Once we launch the teacher check-ins with children and families, that will hopefully also help. Relationships are a large part of learning. The hope is that teachers will eventually be able to do small group time so that classmates will be able to interact with each other virtually. We’re going to have to get creative in many ways because a lot of the social-emotional pieces and learning moments just happen naturally, in terms of initiating play and figuring out the world around you. Our parents and caregivers are going to take the lead in this area as they interact with their children, but our teachers will be there to help along the way as well.

I guess the short answer to that questions is that we don’t have one complete solution for social-emotional development at this time, other than we recognize that it is vital in early childhood education. We haven’t done virtual learning programming until now and are still a work in progress. I’m confident that we will get our families high quality, well-rounded programming.

Crystal: With the other task forces [have] real lines of sight into how to support moms in their own emotions and wellbeing so that they can then support kids. One of the things that I know the coaches have been talking about is just general supports for them. They’re communicating, cascading back communication to us about how we might help alleviate some of the tension points that moms are feeling. Even though this is a stark and strong move away from what normal probably feels like for a lot of our families, I think we do come from the vein of feeling as though families are not only just partners, but they’re their child’s number one teacher. The idea that our teachers are there as support to our families is indicative of the type of partnership that Jeremiah wants to have with families. It’s really about just knowing the kids individually. A lot of our teachers are super excited to be checking in with families and checking in with kids, but they’re also tailoring what these [modules] to specific children. When our teachers get ahold of them, I think we’re going to see a lot of innovations and really thoughtful additions to what they’re going to provide for kids.

How is Jeremiah Program making sure participants have the right technology to be able to participate in the virtual programs?

Crystal: Chastity’s been a real front-runner on this. She has talked about not seeing this pandemic and the situation we’re in as incremental shifts, but thinking about it as changing the game and how we literally operate and the things that we provide. So Chastity is not trying to look at the end of when shelter-in-place is lifted. She’s saying, “What does this mean for changing the scope of what we do altogether?” Because COVID is going to change what we do, how we interact, what’s acceptable. The normal that we knew is not going to be the normal we walk back into, and technology is a huge piece of that.

They’ve been able to secure 50 Lenovo laptops from Rasmussen College. What we did early on was send out a survey to all the teachers to ask what their technology needs are, including whether or not they had reliable WIFI, as well as access to some type of device that has a camera and a microphone and the ability to type so that they could plan. We have already distributed a number of laptops and are going to get to WIFI hotspots to our teachers. The next step in the process is for us to take the extra computers and distribute them to our families so that everybody—teacher, family, and staff—are connected 

Chastity had the foresight to say, “How do we get our hands on some technology early ?” and she was able to get a lot of those resources. We have an abundance right now because most people have it at home, luckily. But for the folks that didn’t, we were able to send that out to them very quickly. 

How do you see these modules and this modality being part of Jeremiah Program after the pandemic passes?

Crystal: I believe that where we’re headed is actually a more holistic, whole-child approach of what distance and virtual learning could look like. The resources are an immediate fix. It’s something that we can tangibly give to families, but I’m really excited about the promise of thinking about: If we can never go back to a CDC as we know it, what does this mean? What does this mean for how we interface as an organization with our families? The idea of getting into the headspace of: How might we think about the future of early childhood not being confined to the four walls of a child development center? How might we utilize technology to increase alignment and learning between families and our school? How might we see children and their individual interests as the guiding principles for the things that we use in our classrooms and amongst all of the JP regions? 

The work of innovation and the work of redesign requires us to leave behind a mindset that we already know. The exercise of having to think a new and thinking of something that hasn’t been done yet is going to take some time. It’s also going to take some inspiration for folks to feel that there is a new normal that we can design. And there’s a lot of benefit in doing so because we understand that schools are inequitable. They have been for hundreds of years. And if we have the opportunity to redesign, why not redesign with the idea that we have the opportunity to give our children the very best? It’s no longer about a geographical zip code. It’s no longer about a subset of teachers in that region. Everything that we can imagine we can actually make possible with the advent of this idea that we no longer have to operate school in the way that we’ve always known it.