In her decade at Strategies for Children, Amy O’Leary, director of our of our Early Education for All Campaign, has become known around the state and country as a strong and effective advocate for young children. She joined EEA in 2002, after working for 10 years as a preschool teacher and program director at Ellis Memorial and Eldredge House Inc. in Boston’s South End neighborhood. In 2011 she was elected to the governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She talks about her experiences and outlook in a recent post on the Conversations on Early Learning blog of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children.
“As a teacher and a director, I became more and more frustrated with policies that seemed to construct more barriers rather than bridges for children and families to achieve long term success. My experience at Ellis taught me what it’s like as a teacher to try to have high-quality programs, to keep up with the research on child development, and to look at the whole child connected to a family. As I transitioned into my role as advocate, I knew how critical it was to have early educators as part of the policy-making process because they are on the ground every day feeling the policy implications,” O’Leary said.
“I also understand the financing and economics of early education at a different level. Ellis served children who had state subsidies and children who were private-pay. As a director, I saw families that didn’t qualify for subsidies by $5. I saw my staff struggle to make ends meet – as I did, too, with a starting salary of $16,000 as a preschool teacher. As an emerging advocate, I thought about what the impact of all this was on children, families and other staff. It became very real to me.”
The switch to policy and advocacy carried some surprises.
“I’m surprised by how hard it is to sustain funding to keep dong our work as advocates for young children. And I am struck by how difficult it is to sustain momentum, not only with the public but also with policymakers and families. Keeping it a priority is surprisingly difficult,” O’Leary said. “I’m surprised by the fact that we have an overwhelming body of research that tells us how important it is to invest in high-quality early education, and yet we still have so far to go. We know what to do. Although we have made some progress, this knowledge hasn’t translated into nearly enough action.”
She also had advice for fellow advocates.
“We need fearless, strategic leaders for children who understand that this is a long-term commitment. We need to come together and be consistent with our message and to use research to make recommendations,” O’Leary said. “Ultimately, we need to keep our eye on the prize and remember why we’re doing this work and what our big vision is for young children and families in the commonwealth.”
Post script. Here is our most recent advocacy ask. With state revenues coming in below expectations, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is considering mid-year cuts. Massachusetts readers, email the governor to urge him not to cut funding for early education and care.