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Kristin McSwain
CLOSING THE GAP: EDUCATION

Kristin McSwain

Executive Director, Boston Opportunity Agenda

AS YOU LOOK AT THE LANDSCAPE, WHERE ARE YOUR GREATEST CONCERNS ABOUT WHAT WE’VE LOST DURING COVID, AND WHAT ARE SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT HOW TO PUT US BACK ON COURSE?

There are three areas that I think have experienced the greatest disruption and they’re the points at which young people and families transition. First, in early childhood, there are all of the children who should have had, not only an introduction to education, but experiences with peers that lead to social and emotional learning—not to mention screening for those who need help developmentally. That’s a period you never get back. Those children should have been in child care, not only having the opportunity for an educational experience but a peer experience, where they can learn all of the social and emotional things that one learns when you’re in an early childhood setting, as well as having access to screening, as well as follow-up as needed, for young people who are struggling and could use some additional help developmentally. So, that’s a huge period of time that you don’t get again for a young person, because your brain develops so differently in that time period. That’s a period you will never get back. So, those young children—the ones who were in child care and didn’t make the transition to kindergarten in person or the young children who just haven’t had the opportunity to be in a child care setting because they’ve been disconnected from in-person experiences or have had a virtual experience. Arguably that’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same as being in there in person.

Then there are those between middle school and high school, who exercise a little more agency over their learning but haven’t had the out-of-school experiences that can connect them to the real world that help them think about who they are and who they want to be. That’s the group of young people who are in that middle school, high school arena who, over the course of the pandemic, haven’t had the opportunity to have internships or after-school programs or summer programs. So, those places where they learn about things outside of the classroom that connect them to the real world and drive their learning the following semester or the following year and help them think about who they are and what they want to be and connect that to their educational experience. So that seven-to-twelve age group who did not get the robust, enriching experiences both in school and out of school that you would want for them—where they’re really thinking about who they are, what they want to learn about, their questions about the world—that is a huge block of time that was missing. 

Finally, there are those who haven’t transitioned successfully out of the K-12 system into higher education, whether a four-year college or a two-year college, going to work, thinking about some kind of apprenticeship or other training experience. For some young people, that shift was made successfully and for other young people, it just didn’t happen. So I think we’ll start to hear stories about young people who are still at home, not having successfully transitioned out of the K-12 system into what’s next. Many college leaders will tell you that our higher ed institutions were built for white males. So, how do we change that? We value the assets that are brought by young men and women of color. That’s the equity work we have to do.

THE BOSTON OPPORTUNITY AGENDA HAS A NEW INITIATIVE CALLED “GENERATION SUCCESS.” DOES THAT ADDRESS THE SECOND GROUP YOU SPOKE ABOUT—THOSE WHO ARE 7 TO 12 YEARS OF AGE? 

Yes, it really focuses on that group. So, if you think about Success Boston as “Getting Ready, Getting In, Getting Through and Getting Connected,” it’s really that “Getting Ready” space. So, for ages 7 to 12, we’re thinking about experiences those young people should have, both in school and out-of-school. 

WHEN YOU THINK OF THOSE THREE GROUPS, WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS WE COULD DO TO MITIGATE THE DAMAGE AND GET BACK ON TRACK, STARTING WITH THE BIRTH-TO-8 GROUP?

When I think about young children, in particular, we need to make sure that there is a high-quality child-care option for any family that wants one. So, we need to double down in our investments in child care and centers to make sure that when parents return to work—or want to return to work—there is a place for their children to go and learn and grow and develop. It’s a huge challenge, both in terms of the supply and the quality of child care. The report that we recently published that drew attention to the lack of adequate supply was only about supply. We just don’t know about quality. 

WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT THE SOLUTION TO THIS—PROVIDING HIGH-QUALITY CHILD CARE—WHAT SECTORS CAN HELP WITH THAT? PHILANTHROPY? BUSINESS? GOVERNMENT? 

I think there’s a role for each individual sector to play and for those sectors that play at the local and national levels. Already we’re seeing federal funds through the Recovery Act recognizing that child care is a driver of economic opportunity, not just educationally for children, but because of the importance of the child-care infrastructure to our economy. The centers are important businesses, because they employ people, they pay salaries, they have a professional development network and the economic business itself—and then there is the role that it plays in economic development writ large. As I mentioned before, it’s not just allowing parents to return to the workforce, but to be productive while they’re there (because they’re not worrying about where their young child is and whether he or she is safe and nurturing and all of those other things that we look for in quality child care). So, there’s that piece of it. And in the federal budget, you’re seeing conversations, many led by our delegation, about the importance of the child-care sector to our economy. So, there’s a realization that child care may be considered a public good that allows our economy to function as we’d like it to function. 

At the state level, you’re seeing a focus on using the federal money that has come through the various types of aid that have been made available during the pandemic, to really think about the financing model and how we invest in both subsidized slots, but also use that subsidy to support the larger infrastructure so that it also has an effect on the parents who are paying privately, and supports some new innovations that they’re attempting.

On the city level, what we’re seeing is an opportunity both to invest in workforce development—providing workforce development and funds to increase the number of folks who are engaged in family child care, which is really a small business, and small centers, which are clearly businesses, whether they’re profit or nonprofit, there are supports that can be provided through the Small Business Administration that the city runs. The Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement has become quite involved in providing business training through their partnership with the United Way. Over the last two years, that office has really invested in providing training to family child-care providers, 90% of whom are women. They are generally women of color and immigrants and they really provide the backbone of family child care. 

So, that’s the role that government can play. I think the role that philanthropy can play is in helping us move nimbly and urgently to pilot some models that government can then scale. So, we can invest in things like helping to build the business model that they’re using to train providers and look to expand to include other things such as marketing and developmental screening. So, really thinking about how we build a model that then the city, the state and the federal government can invest in and bring to scale. Another thing philanthropy can do is just help these centers make it through this period that is so unstable. 

ARE BUSINESSES STEPPING UP?

Businesses already are stepping up and thinking about what they can do from a funding and policy perspective.  There’s a business coalition that has been funded and it has been formed by Eastern Bank and is being spearheaded by Tom Weber, who is a Fellow at Eastern Bank and the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education. And they’re really thinking about the things that business can do, both from a funding perspective, but also from a policy perspective. Whether that’s advocating for state-level policy, whether it’s thinking about their own benefits perspective for their own employees… There are all kinds of different ways that business can be engaged. So, the Business Coalition is really thinking through what they can do together as a group of businesspeople. I think that COVID has really helped the business community understand the value that child care has for them as leaders. And that has really opened the door for them to participate.

IT SEEMS THAT THERE IS ALMOST MORE OPPORTUNITY FOR GOVERNMENT AND PHILANTHROPY AND BUSINESS TO INVEST IN EARLY CHILDHOOD THAN THERE ARE IN THE OTHER AREAS OF TRANSITION YOU MENTIONED—OR ARE THERE EQUALLY EXCITING INVESTMENTS MADE IN THOSE AREAS ALSO?

I think there are equally exciting investments being made in different ways in those other spaces. But I do think that philanthropy can have a real impact on childhood, probably more than you can see the impact in the other spaces because early childhood is such a fragmented ecosystem. So, in K-12, we have the public school system and that is a huge infrastructure, and so the contributions that philanthropy can make are just as important when we think about innovation and change. But I think they’re also harder to see. Whereas, you can really see them in the early childhood space, particularly right now, because it’s such a crisis moment. You can see the work that is happening and the investments that are being made.

WE’VE HAD BUSINESS INVOLVEMENT IN SUCCESS BOSTON WITH THE BOSTON PIC BEING VERY INVOLVED IN THIS AND ALSO COLLEGES AND NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS.

So, in that space, there’s a real focus on thinking about moving from K-12 into higher education, and there are a couple of big investments that are being pushed and a couple of ways of thinking about the work. One is continuing to focus on ensuring that young people are better prepared when they get to postsecondary education. So, this real focus on early college that the state has done in a piloted way through a number of different higher ed institutions, Bunker Hill Community College being one, the focus is on, “How do you make those connections more tightly woven together between K-12 schools and higher education?” There’s this real focus on early college, which has had some tremendous outcomes. The Smith Family Foundation has been deeply engaged in that conversation and has been funding those pathways for the last several years. And so that work holds great promise for getting young people to post-secondary institutions with a deep college knowledge, so that they are moving more quickly through to a degree, and then the last piece is that they have a familiarity with the institution, which really leads them to a sense of belonging. One of the reports that we put out on stop-outs through Success Boston is that some young people become stop-outs because they don’t’ have a sense of belonging, particularly our Black and Latino males. So, early college addresses some of those issues.

What we’ve been working on, particularly with Success Boston over the last 12 months, is thinking about how we, as a coalition, are working on the institutional change that needs to happen at colleges and universities around equity. So, a lot of college leaders, and Pam Edinger is one, will tell you that our higher ed institutions were built for white males. So, how do we change that and value the assets that are brought by young men and young women of color? How do we pivot those institutions so that they behave differently? 

That’s the equity work that we’ve been thinking about when it comes to Success Boston. And how do we set up a framework for ourselves in which we do that?

HOW IMPORTANT ARE AFTER SCHOOL EXPERIENCES AND SUMMER EXPERIENCES TO CLOSING THE EQUITY GAP IN EDUCATON?

I would actually broaden that to include all out-of-school time, both your traditional after-school programs that are both connected to school, and also those that are community internships, volunteer opportunities and then a wide variety of summer programs. We have a group of students for whom summer programming last year was completely virtual. Because, at that time, all of the summer programming that happened—if it was connected to schools, was virtual; and if it was in community, it was summer camps and sleepaway camps. Those kinds of activities didn’t happen last summer, by and large for most children. So, all children who went through this virtual period, where they attended classes virtually, if they did summer at all, many children in Boston were in a virtual classroom until April. The vast majority of them. So, there’s this huge time period during which students didn’t interact with their peers in the same way. They didn’t interact with adults in the same way and, by in large, the focus was on pure academic content delivery. We don’t want to leave young people on screens for 12 hours a day, so this summer, there was a real push from parents and schools and community partners to have those interactions be in person. Again, though, not all of them were. Many of them were hybrid—and so there still is, for a lot of young people, for the past two years, this real drop-off in participation in in-person activities.

And when you think about after-school and summer opportunities, these are the places where you learn problem-solving skills, you learn to work with adults in a different way, work with your peers in a different way. All of the things that we really focused on when creating the summer-learning program—such as Boston After School and Beyond, a lot of students definitely last year, and even this year, it was hard enough to get those opportunities for young people.

The other issue that we haven’t talked about is that young people sat for such a long period of time. So, we worry that not only were they not getting enough exercise and movement, but your mind and your body are connected. So, how is that working for young people right now?