How quality early education can close wealth, wellness, and class gaps [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are honored to have Senate Alexander join us to talk about how quality early childhood education can close wealth, wellness, and class gaps. Senate is the Executive Director for Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning. Growing up in poverty, he understands the struggles children and their families face. He has dedicated his career to being part of the solution to our poverty crisis. High-quality early learning is an incredibly important path to better things for our future generations.

Senate grew up in a low-income, single-parent household. In grade four, he had the privilege to attend the Milton Hershey boarding school where everything from education to housing and food was provided. He was given so much there, he was looking for ways to give back and found a passion in education. He went to Law School and focused on non-profit management with the goal of being able to run a school like the one he went to. He has now achieved this goal!

Children that do not have quality early childhood education generally have issues with lower pay, attendance rates at school, and mental health challenges. It is hard to get out of the cycle of poverty. This is why we need more preventative measures like early childhood education from birth to five years old so that we can prevent these negative consequences and interactions many young adults from poverty experience. The earlier we start with education, the more likely we are to make lasting change and it needs to be consistent.

Along with classroom education, engaging children’s families to help them put in place tools that break the cycle of poverty is also important. These are things such as proper supplies, job opportunities, etc. Taking this two-generational approach is important so that when children leave the school they are able to build on the skills they already have and their parents can continue to support them. We must work together and connect an ecosystem that lifts up and inspires a community that focuses on early childhood education.

Encourage early childhood educators to remember the WHY. What we do is not always the most glamorous but it is the most impactful. All other professions come from another teacher teaching. Early childhood education is about the one-on-one relationship and caring about the child’s individual needs. The concept of whole child care is about recognizing the reality of adverse childhood experiences and helping children overcome them. It is about socio-emotional learning and helping children connect with their feelings. Then, play is one of the best ways to help children learn and grow. Having a safe space to play promotes positive social interaction for their futures.

Listen to the full episode to dive deeper into the effects of early childhood education on young children growing up in poverty!

If you are looking to make positive change, it is all of those pieces working together, such as having more engagement with the children that do not have to cost much money. Just building that relationship with the child, that takes time and effort and that helps them soar

Senate Alexander

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Podcast Transcript

Senate ALEXANDER:

Educators, if you’re looking to really be able to make that positive change, all of those pieces working together, those things are going to be super, super important. And the thing is, is that these types of things that I just talked about, having more engagement with the children, those things don’t have to cost that much money. Just building that relationship with a child, that just takes time and effort. And so that’s a huge part of it because then you become their safe person. And that just, once again, that just helps them soar even more.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Senate, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

ALEXANDER:

Yeah, thank you for having me, Ron. It’s very nice to be here with you!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re delighted to have with us today Senate Alexander. He’s executive director of Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning in Pennsylvania, in the United States of America. Really, really wonderful to have you on the show with us today, Senate. We’re going to be talking to Senate today about how quality early education can close wealth, wellness and class gaps. And as we always do, Senate, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and how you became executive director of Hershey Schools for Early Learning there in Pennsylvania.

ALEXANDER:

Sure. So, I grew up right outside of Philadelphia; I grew up in a low-income family. It was just basically my mom, myself and then my brother. And so as growing up in a low-income, single family household, just thinking about all the different things that go with that. So, food insecurities, medical, dental issues and those things. And so in fourth grade, my life was changed forever. That was when I had the opportunity to attend the Milton Hershey School.

And so the Milton Hershey School was a private boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, that is for children pre-K through 12th grade. And at the Milton Hershey School, all of the Milton Hershey students come from low-income families like myself. And the entire school experience, from tuition to food to clothing to housing to medical, dental, psychological care and activities, they’re all provided at no cost to the families.

And so this was just a truly tremendous just opportunity to go from the situation that I was in to being able to come to the Milton Hershey School [MHS]. And they really played a really pivotal role just in my life as I left the school. And one of the biggest things for me was, when I look back, I was given so much. And being a Milton Hershey School student, I was looking for ways to be able to give back.

And so for me, I really found a passion in education. So, I started out as an assistant teacher while I was going to Temple University to get my Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and really worked my way up from there. I’ve been an assistant teacher; I’ve been a lead teacher, a director in early-childhood education; I’ve been a regional manager and been also, obviously, an executive director, as well.

Somewhere in between there, I decided to go to law school at the American University of Washington College of Law. And really while in law school, I really focused on really nonprofit management and leading and counseling nonprofit organizations. And really, with the goal of being able to run something like the Catherine Hershey School for Early Learning, being able to match my education background with my legal nonprofit background. And so I was recently appointed as the executive director of the Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning, which is a new initiative that will really serve hundreds of children, leveraging the whole child approach image that MHS has been a leader for the last 112 years.

RON

That’s a great story, and I appreciate you sharing that with our audience. And [we’re] interested to dove in a little bit more. So, you mentioned that this had a big impact on you, going to the school. Is there certain memories that really stand out to you, as having an impact on you at an early age and through that journey through this great program that you went to?

ALEXANDER:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that one was just having varying experiences. So, coming from a city like Philadelphia, there’s very slim, different experiences that you have. And there are different experiences when you come to a place like Hershey, which is very rural. And so one of the things for me, in the summertime I would milk cows, I would be able to ride horses, go on field trips, just see things that I just would normally not have been able to do. I also learned how to drive a tractor at the age of 13 and 14. But I really learned just the value of just hard work and just perseverance and that when you put your mind to something, when you really work hard on something, you really can achieve almost anything.

The other thing is also just being with kind and caring adults, their only job is to really see you succeed. And so I remember that feeling at Milton Hershey School and really just wanting to build a career that also would be what it is, to ensure that more children were able to have that because there are a lot of children, especially from low-income backgrounds, that that is not always the case. And so the more that we can help with that, it’s something that’s really just stuck with me as I’ve grown in my career.

RON

That’s really cool. So yeah, I really like just the point about being in a different environment, experiencing new things and new surroundings just really opened your perspective and gave you some great experiences. And what about on the reverse side? If you think about, what if you didn’t have that opportunity? And what about other children who maybe grew up in a similar situation to you in poverty and low-income households? And what if they fail to have this opportunity, in particular at a young age?

ALEXANDER:

Yeah, I think that that for me, that’s something that I’ve done a lot of reflection on. And just thinking about friends that I had from back at home and where some of them ended up. And I almost felt like I won the lottery when I was able to go to Milton Hershey School. And it’s sad that it’s not every child is able to get that because really, the effects on not being able to get that, there are so many things that go with that.

So, we find that children that don’t have quality early-childhood education or just quality whole child education, they have things with mental health. They have issues with lower attendance rates in college, lower pay. It really just continues to just perpetuate that cycle of poverty. And it becomes so hard to really be able to get out of that cycle of poverty. Once you’re trapped into there, you almost need some type of intervention to really leave.

And for me, the intervention was the Milton Hershey School. And so really just so, so excited that with the Catherine Hershey School is that we will be able to do that for our families. We will be able to help with that intervention and being able to impact more children’s lives so that more children don’t have to have those negative consequences that go with poverty.

RON

Yeah, and it sounds like such a great program. You mentioned you felt like you won the lottery, and certainly I can see what you mean there. Why don’t more schools like this exist if, they do have such an amazing impact, like in your own personal life?

ALEXANDER:

Sure. I think one of the biggest reasons why is really just a lack of resources. So, I think a lack of funding to be able to do the robust care that goes with this. The Milton Hershey School, and now, obviously, the Catherine Hershey School, are blessed by obviously our founders, Milton and Catherine Hershey, who really gave this endowment for low-income children. And so for them to have that foresight back in 1909 to make this really generous gift – how many children has it now benefited?

But the problem is, is that that lack of funding results then in lack of access. And so we have very, very small resources for this. And it sometimes almost feels as if that education, early-childhood education, it almost goes into that back burner, as opposed to really giving it the due that it really needs to really be able to have those full, wraparound supports. But it’s really the funding. And we really desperately need a significant investment in early-childhood education if we’re really going to do this right.

RON

Yeah. And what age is the right age, do you think, to offer an opportunity to a young child that maybe in living in poverty to go to a program like Milton Hershey, like the Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning. [We’re] curious to know sort of from your own personal experience, as well, sort of what you remember from those different ages when you were going through the different grades and what the impacts were through that journey.

ALEXANDER:

So, one of the things when I was in law school, I worked at the public defender’s office for one summer. And working at the public defender’s office, I did a lot of their intake of when folks were coming in. And one of the things that we always heard was, we would always ask them, “Tell me about your background story.” We always heard the same things: low-income, no early-childhood education, poor school broken family, X, Y and Z. And so one of the things that, for me, from that experience, it just meant we could really do so much if we just did more preventative.

And that’s exactly what early-childhood education is, is preventative. How do we prevent them from being in this position? And if we invest in early-childhood education from really [ages] birth to five, we can really start to prevent, once again, those negative consequences that I was talking about: interactions with the juvenile system, interactions with the criminal system. And so for me, I would always say, “Start as early as possible,” because there’s just so much that the young brain, from infancy on up, that is really starting to form those habits, starting to form those competencies that are really going to really pay off dividends later on in life.

When I think about my time in MHS, in any type of transition – I think that I went at fourth grade – I think in the beginning it was definitely tough. You want to be there with your family. You’re in a brand new environment, you don’t know anybody. But over time you start to make friends; you start to really get involved in campus life; you really start to get involved. You have your house parents and you’re able to form relationships with them.

And so it is something that just, as the years kind of went, I became more and more acclimated, I think, to it. And I think that’s the important part, just in thinking about it. And as I said, I’ll just reiterate one more time: the earlier we can start, the more likelihood that we have to be able to make lasting change. And then it has to just be consistent. Over and over and over again, just reinforcing those competencies, those habits, that caring relationship. All of those things are going to be really super-important if you want to have lasting change that we’re looking to do, and lasting change that MHS done for the last 112 years.

RON

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And you talk about birth-to-five and those early years, and I understand you’re leading an early-learning initiative at the Catherine Hershey Schools. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

ALEXANDER:

Sure. So yes, with the Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning, it is a $350 million investment into early-childhood education, to build and run early learning schools in Pennsylvania. So, the initial $350 million investment is for the creation of six high-quality core early-learning facilities. And so these facilities will be for, as I said, children from at risk and disadvantaged backgrounds. We will have 150 children in each of the centers from birth to five. There will be up to 80 staff members that will be there at the center to care for the children. So, we’re going to have low ratios when it comes childcare taking.

Also, in addition to that, we also just talk a lot about with Catherine Hershey Schools, is how do we have two-generational impact? So, the first part is obviously that core early learning for the children, that is the number one thing that we are really trying to do. How do we get the children kindergarten ready? But then also, how do we start to lay that foundation for them as well, for basically lifelong success in that birth-to-five space?

But then the second thing is, then how do we really help families? And so each of the centers will have a family engagement center that’s within the center. Within that family engagement center is a family engagement manager and then our family engagement specialist. And so those family engagement specialists are going to really work with each of the different families that we have to really just help them and start to build and start to help put into place the things that actually do break the cycle of poverty.

So, we’re talking about helping out with job placement, helping out with resume writing, helping out with housing, helping out with just programmatic supports like diapers, clothing, transportation. And so for us, once again, we are really trying to take that two-generational impact to really help those families, those children, but then also those families as well so that when they do leave our organization, we can build upon the skills that they already have and ensure that when they do go into the public school, when they do go onto their next step, their parents also can still continue that care even after they leave us.

And so when you think about the investment in what we’re trying to do and to be transformational is just so inspiring. And it’s so exciting because we will have all of these different types of supports, all under one roof in each of these centers. So health services, family engagement and obviously educational services, as well. It’s a very exciting piece. Just so you know and just so the listeners know, just around the timeline for all of this: Our first center will open in 2023 in Hershey, Pennsylvania [P.A.]; our second center will open in 2024 in Harrisburg, P.A. And then basically each year thereafter, we will be opening up an additional center until we get those first six.

RON

That is awesome; that’s awesome, Senate. $350 million invested in this, and what a great program it sounds like. And I love that two-generation impact that you talked about. And I know from some of the reading I’ve done from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, they talk a lot about that, too, and just the importance of the adults in a child’s life. And so the fact that you have all these resources and opportunities to support the families more broadly is really quite progressive.

And I guess just to touch on that a little bit further: Is there any other advice you might have for organizations that are serving or are appealing to children from disadvantaged backgrounds like, for example, this family support and these resources that you’ve talked about?

ALEXANDER:

Yeah, so I think that the advice that I would give is to really get out into the community and really form those positive relationships with local leaders and really those who work with children. Even here at the Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning, while we have all of these different resources, we are also going to need to rely on other partners that will be able to help us be able to deliver some of these services.

And so there are different nonprofits, there are other community organizations that are already doing this work. And the biggest thing is, how do we connect the two? How do we connect this ecosystem, which then really lifts up and really inspires that community? And so I would say, really form those relationships.

The other thing is that I would say is, we need to advocate for early-childhood education. I think that we need to really make sure that our leaders, our politicians, folks when it comes to funding and that comes the resources, that they understand really what’s going on when it comes to early-childhood and what are the pitfalls that are going with early childhood. And what are some of the reasons why some of our early-childhood education organizations are struggling right now, especially given the pandemic? There is a great need for early learning and care. But people don’t always just know how, where and what are some of the struggles so that we can all really form and really get together and figure out the next step.

And then I think the last thing for me is, I would just really just encourage ECE [early-childhood education] leaders to really remember the Why, the Why of what we do. What we do is not always the most glamorous, but it really is the most impactful for young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There’s a quote that says, “A teacher is the person that teaches all the other professions.” That’s exactly what it is. All of the other professions come from a teacher teaching. And so the the more we can teach our young children, that’s just going to always, as a society, that’s just going to help us all as they grow and then they start to take on their professions once they graduate and they get out into the real world.

RON

Yeah, absolutely. And we talk a lot about that on the Preschool Podcast. And I catch myself saying that early-childhood educators do the most important work in the world. And then I wonder, that’s a pretty bold statement. But you know what? It’s true. It’s absolutely true. It’s the most important work in the world. It’s the future and it’s so important.

And you mentioned the pandemic there, and hopefully we’re on the back end of this pandemic and we’re hopeful for a more normal future going forward. But it certainly was a topic we spent quite a bit of time on in the Preschool Podcast. And folks are on different sides of the debate about whether learning was impacted during that time period and whatnot. That said, I was curious to get your opinion about whether children from disadvantaged backgrounds were impacted differently through the pandemic.

ALEXANDER:

Sure. Well, all young learners have been impacted by the pandemic. I think it’s becoming clear that low-income and disadvantaged children really have been affected almost the most with this. And the reason why I say that is really because of the shortages in childcare workers. There were really just fewer available pre-K slots available for children. There were a lot of closures that took place during the pandemic.

And when you have children at home, as opposed to at high-quality early learning, they are missing out. And they are not getting the same type of growth and stimulation that they normally would have gotten had they been at a at a high-quality early learning facility. And so we still have not recovered. There is still a shortage of childcare workers. There is still a lot of places that are closed.

And so I think that’s the reason why really the Hershey Schools of Early Learning is really trying to be able to help fill some of that void and that access void. And so, yeah, I just really do believe that low-income and disadvantaged children were really just affected just because of obviously the closures and the shortages that still continue to go.

RON

Yeah, that makes sense. Just wanted to touch also on your running these programs there in Pennsylvania, which are really dedicated to serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But there’s children that come from disadvantaged backgrounds that are in childcare programs and preschools everywhere. So, what advice or tips can you give to educators that are listening here today to better connect with and support those disadvantaged students and children to keep them engaged at a young age? And in especially when we think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the struggles they might be dealing with day-to-day with things we might take for granted in a more privileged situation.

ALEXANDER:

Absolutely. I just think when you’re thinking about quality early education, and we throw around the word “high quality” a lot. And when you’re thinking about quality, it isn’t just about the academics. It’s about that one-on-one engagement with students and children and identifying and caring for their individual needs. Just as you just got finished saying, children from low-income families and disadvantaged families, they do come with a set of individual needs that are different.

And so one of the things that we really just emphasize is that “whole childcare”. And what we mean by that, it’s about recognizing the reality of things like adverse childhood experiences and helping children overcome those challenges. It’s about social-emotional learning and helping children connect with their emotions and connect with their feelings and connect with their abilities.

The other thing that I would also say is that play is one of the best ways for children to learn and grow. And just allowing them to play, it helps them develop their motor skills, their problem solving, their positive social interaction. And so those would be some of the things that I would say is just really, really important that educators, if you’re looking to really be able to make that positive change, is all of those pieces working together is what will allow really, once again, [to] start to change some of the trajectory, change some of the outcomes that we’re looking at. And so that those things are going to be super, super important for [it].

And the thing is, is that those types of things that I just talked about, having more engagement with the children, those things don’t have to cost that much money. Just building that relationship with the child, that just takes time and effort. And so that’s a huge part of it because then you become their safe person. And that, once again, helps them soar even more.

RON

Yeah, that one-to-one relationship is just so important. Very cool. Well, thanks for sharing that, Senate. And if I think about our conversation here today, I’m curious to know in your situation, you grew up in poverty and you were lucky to have the opportunity to go to this school. And you decided to give back with the work that you’re doing. Do you recall when you made that decision and what the drive was to say, “Hey, I’m going to go give back and take on an opportunity to try to help other kids that grew up like me”?

ALEXANDER:

Yeah, I was in college doing my undergrad at Temple University. And one of the things that Temple does is it does a very huge focus just on the Philadelphia school district – just school districts in general, urban school districts – and just did some of the different issues and things that go with those different types of school districts. And so I remember just going through those classes and just reading about our education system. And it really, a light bulb went off on me. And I was just like, “Wow, I was given so much in being able to go to the Milton Hershey School.”

And then looking at what is out there in the rest of the world, in some of these impoverished areas, and just looking at just what was available, it struck me like, “Wow, I need to do something with this. I’ve been given an incredible gift.” And one of the things that was always… there was a quote that it was [from] one of my teachers. It said, “You have received without payment, now give without payment.” And that was something that always really stuck with me.

And I just basically said, “This is what I want to do. I want to ensure that more…” because there’s not enough folks that… the Milton Hershey School, right now, it can only help so many children. Which is why we have the Catherine Hershey Schools now, to now help even more children. And as we continue to think about ways to increase that impact, I just wanted to be a part of just being able to increase, once again, the impact and the gift that was given to me. I wanted to ensure that more children were able to be a part of that gift, as well, that I was able to attend such a program.

RON

Yeah, awesome, thanks for sharing that story. And we’re glad you did make that decision. And speaking of learning. And you mentioned that when you were at Temple, you learned about the education system and that was a big driver for you. What about something that you can share with our audience for their learning and professional development? Some type of resource that you think they could check out to support with their ongoing development and learning?

ALEXANDER:

What I would say is, for one, thinking about leadership development. I think one of the things when it comes to early-childhood education is that we haven’t put as much into really leadership in ensuring that leadership in the early-childhood education space is really top-notch. And when we say that leadership flows down, it’s a trickle-down effect. So, I would just say, really taking a look and really trying to do as much reading and as much things that they can on leadership development.

One of the things that I’ve read, Good to Great [Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins] was one leadership book that I read. Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. So, there’s just a plethora of ones that are just out there when it comes to leadership development, that I would also say.

The other thing that I would also say is that the Milton Hershey School and the Catherine Hershey School have been really working on these poverty talks and just talking through just what it means, what whole child education is, what is adverse childhood experiences. And so I would also just say, Milton Hershey School has been a thought leader just in this type of whole childcare for, like I said, 112 years. And so they do have a lot of videos that I know they have on their website, as well, that give more information about what [the] whole child approach means and how [you can] start to think about putting those things into practice, as well.

RON

Yeah, and I think that’s really important. And it sounds like there’s some good resources there. So, if our listeners want to check out some of this stuff, where can they go to get more information?

ALEXANDER:

Sure. So, one thing is that just for our organization, for the Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning, we invite you to visit our website, which is www.CHSLearn.org. And then on the other side, for the Milton Hershey School, www.HMSKids.org is the URL for that site. And so both of those, they have resources on there that say a little bit more about just what the Catherine Hershey Schools do. And then also the Milton Hershey School has, once again, those thought leadership pieces that are there for people to learn more.

RON

Awesome, sounds like some great resources for our listeners to check out. And also, I couldn’t agree with you more about learning and reading about leadership, so important in every role, and especially as an early-childhood educator. Senate, thank you so much for joining us here today. And thank you for giving back to the community and all the work that you’re doing!

ALEXANDER:

Absolutely. Thank you for having me, Ron!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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