Spotlight: Amy O’Leary
Amy O’Leary is director of Early Education for All, a campaign of Strategies for Children, an advocacy and policy organization that works to ensure that children in Massachusetts have access to high-quality early education and become proficient readers by the end of third grade. Amy joined EEA in 2002 as the early childhood field director and has also served as the Campaign’s deputy director.
Prior to joining EEA, Amy worked as a preschool teacher and program director at Ellis Memorial and Eldredge House Inc. in Boston. In 2011, Amy was elected to the governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She is a member of the Children’s Defense Fund Emerging Leader Fellowship and serves on the adjunct faculty at Wheelock College in Boston. In addition, Amy presents at national, state and local conferences and provides technical assistance to advocates in other states.
Amy earned a Master in Public Administration degree from the Sawyer School of Management at Suffolk University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and early education from Skidmore College.
How does your earlier work experience as a preschool teacher and program director impact your work as an early education advocate?
I am extremely grateful for the experience I had at Ellis Memorial working with children and families. 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 thepolicy-making process because they are on the ground every day feeling the policy implications.
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 impact of all this was on children, families and other staff. It became very real to me.
And how does your current work as an adjunct faculty member at Wheelock influence your work as an advocate?
Right now, I am a co-instructor for the Leadership Empowerment Action Project, LEAP, in Boston as part of the Gwen Morgan Certificate. I am very passionate about developing and nurturing leaders for young children. It keeps me connected to what’s happening on the ground.
What has surprised you most about early education policy in MA during your ten years with SFC?
There are several things that surprise me about early education policy. The first is how long and deliberate the policymaking process is. I watch the process not only as an advocate but also as someone who has had the experience of working in the field and knows how critical these policies can be.You have to be thoughtful and careful about what you’re putting into policy and regulation. I know the process is lengthy for a reason, but it can be frustrating! If I think back to when I started at the Campaign, those three year olds are now thirteen! We have a limited opportunity to have an impact on children. Think of all that we could have accomplished for those children who are now thirteen. We have made some progress, but that really puts it in perspective.
I also continue to be surprised, amazed and inspired by the field. In spite of everything—the increased standards, the changing regulations, the initiatives coming down from the state and federal government, the lack of significant resources –the field continues to positively respond and work harder to make things better for young children.
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.
Finally, 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.
Please describe SFC and the EEA Campaign–where it started and how it got where it is now. What are the campaign’s goals for 2013?
We are a statewide policy and advocacy organization working to ensure that children in MA have access to high quality early education and become proficient readers by the end of third grade. The Campaign was launched in 2000 by Margaret Blood, a well-known child advocate. We have a Board of Directors and a 54-member advisory committee of leaders from early childhood, education, business, labor, health care, religion and philanthropy.
Our goals for FY 2013 are to continue to advocate for increased investment in early education in the state budget, to monitor and to advance policy within the Departments of Early Education and Care, Elementary and Secondary Education, and Higher Education. We will continue to follow the implementation of the Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS) and Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) initiatives. We will also monitor the federal Early Learning Challenge and the Race to the Top grants.
In Massachusetts, 39% of third graders are not proficient readers, according to the 2012 MCAS results released on Monday, September 17. These statewide results remain unchanged from last year. Performance on this critical benchmark has remained stagnant since 2001, when 38% of third graders scored below proficient in reading. Among children from low-income families, 60% lag in reading, a number that has not varied significantly over the past several years.
As we expand our work from thinking about an entitlement for children of high quality early education to thinking about an outcome for children of third-grade reading proficiency, we’ve become more involved in supporting best practices around children’s language and literacy development. Five cities in Massachusetts – Boston, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield and Worcester – applied for the National Civic League’s All-America City Award, which this year focused on third grade reading. We are working with these communities to create a learning network that will not only share and promote best practices but will also help inform statewide policy.
Where do things stand in the legislature with your bill, An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency?
In 2010 we commissioned the report, “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” to start to address how to ensure that children can read proficiently by the end of third grade. The report’s recommendations inform An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency. Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose) and Representative Marty Walz (D-Boston) introduced the bill in January 2011, and in July 2012, the Legislature passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support. Right now, it is on Governor Patrick’s desk. The bill would establish an Early Literacy Expert Panel to guide state agencies on research-based strategies to improve the language and literacy development of children from birth to age 9.
We are very grateful for the support and leadership of Senator Clark and Representative Walz, the bill’s lead sponsors, as well as for the support and leadership of Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) and Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston), who co-chair the Joint Committee on Education, and of Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Please contact the governor and ask him to sign this bill!
How do you think early education advocates can work together most effectively to address the state’s problem with improving access to quality early education?
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. We need to build relationships with legislators and other elected officials. We need to be part of the conversation and part of the solution, which may mean doing some things differently. We need to build our own skills to become good advocates and good messengers. 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.