More than 200 people came to the Boston Children’s Museum last Thursday night to attend “Conversation with the Boston Mayoral Candidates – Early Childhood and Education: Closing the Achievement and Opportunity Gaps.” Strategies for Children, Boston Children’s Museum, Thrive in 5 and United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley cosponsored the event along with 31 other organizations.
Both candidates – City Councilor John Connolly and State Representative Marty Walsh — participated, each on stage separately. Candidates answered questions posed by the night’s moderator, WBZ political reporter Jon Keller, and from the audience, which included early educators, providers, pediatricians, college students, professors of higher education, teachers, advocates, and citizens.
As Carolyn Lyons, the president and CEO of Strategies for Children, explained to the audience in her introduction, the forum builds on the momentum that has been fueled by early education proposals from Governor Deval Patrick and other governors, the Massachusetts legislature and President Obama’s bold proposal to expand preschool programs nationally.
The candidates were asked to come prepared to articulate their vision for Boston’s children and families and discuss what they would do for children and families should they become mayor. They responded by discussing early education, early educator compensation, funding and revenue, family engagement, home visiting programs, poverty, and closing the academic achievement gap and broader opportunity gap. Here’s their take on some of those issues.
“I actually think back to City Councilor Sam Yoon who was the first person to say to me when my daughter was born: Do you talk to her every day? Nobody ever said that to me before,” Connolly said, noting that every parent needs help parenting, and adding, “It’s talk, read, play; talk, read, play. That’s the advice every parent needs.”
Connolly said he is an “absolute believer” in a mixed delivery system of early education and care, and that he used a mixed delivery system for his own children, who attended a home-based child care program.
“I would absolutely look for a superintendent who recognizes that early education is the best thing that we can do to see the graduation rates where we want them.”
“We still have to think about supporting the mom and helping her grow and helping her succeed,” Connolly said, adding, “I would like to see us make great efforts to have our Boston Public Schools open at night and become learning centers for adults.” Adult education and English as a second language are two vital, but missing pieces.
“If we really want to close an opportunity divide that’s driven by deep-seated inequities in how our whole society is set up, we have to go to extraordinary lengths to bridge that divide.”
Walsh emphasized the importance of helping families in the first three years of their child’s life. “One of the ways I’d like to try and do that is – it might sound kind of silly – is by doing a welcome package or almost a congratulations package.” That package would be given to all new families and explain the importance of child development, reading and singing to children.
Walsh also called for working with providers to create structure for young families.
“If we can allow more families access to daycare, number one that will help. Number two: also work on helping parents — sometimes younger parents — give them the education they need to go forward. “
Saying that he had been asked at an earlier event how, if he were elected, he’d use the mayor’s bully pulpit, Walsh admitted that he had a brain freeze. But when asked again in front of a room full of early education advocates and supporters, he had an answer, saying, “The bully pulpit will be used to help make sure that the private providers are successful,” Walsh said, noting that private providers supply essential support including social services and help for parents.
Walsh also talked about improving mental health services for young children and for teenagers. He shared the story of a young man he’d recently met whose brother had been murdered, and how several years later that young man’s main goal was to avenge his brother’s death. What was missing? Services in schools that can help children who have been traumatized by violence.
The following day on his WBZ news commentary, “Keller at Large,” Keller reflected on the event and the candidates, “If you’ve ever endured a string of interviews for a job, you know how grueling they can be. For these two, the Children’s Museum forum was the fourth job interview of the day, and each went on to other events when it ended at nine.”
Keller adds: “The questioning from the crowd was skeptical and detailed. And at times the candidates struggled to balance their desire to offer hope with a reluctance to over-promise, their urge to win over voters with their insistence on their own principles.”
This forum was a starting point for a larger, ongoing policy conversation in the city. Despite the lack of grand promises, children and families in Boston can be hopeful knowing that the next mayor, whoever is elected, is mindful of the many issues that affect children and families – issues that will require strategic policy solutions in the years ahead.
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