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For Pittsburgh’s top childcare advocate, it’s a lifetime commitment

Marty Levine
April11/ 2013

Pittsburgh’s top childcare advocate

Michelle Figlar remembers being very pregnant with her first child in 2006 when she ran into then-Mayor Bob O’Connor in the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She had worked with O’Connor when he was a Roy Rogers restaurant executive; now she was the brand-new head of PAEYC, the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, which advocates for top-quality care and instruction for the region’s youngest children.

“He was so happy for me, because he knew that was what I had always wanted to do,” Figlar recalls. “He told me, ‘You have to reach out to other elected officials. You have to let us help you.’

Working with Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children

And that’s what Figlar’s been doing at PAEYC: helping to develop the professionals who care for and teach our children, as well as advocating for public and government support.

“To be able to come home and become the executive director of this organization has been both uplifting and a dream come true for someone who’s been in early childhood education her entire career.”

Figlar graduated in 1991 from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in child development from the School of Social Work, later earning a master’s degree in early childhood special education at Penn State University and her teaching certification. She worked as a nursery-school teacher here and a Head Start teacher and director in Chicago and Cleveland before returning to her child-care roots.

“Teachers who are teaching in child-care centers weren’t well respected like a K-12 teacher,” she says, “but they were doing the hardest work there is.” She quit her job to become a VISTA volunteer for 18 months in a Northern California child-care center, helping to develop a curriculum.

“It was that experience that gave me the whole picture of early childhood education,” she remembers. “It was there that I realized I wanted to spend my career making the field of early childhood education a field that the community would value. People thought of us as babysitters, and we’re not. I hoped someday to be in a place where people could understand just how important this work was.”

Joining PAEYC as only its second executive director, Figlar was immediately impressed with its efforts to plan activities for the Month of the Young Child, set for two months later, in April. “I’ve lived a lot of places and I’ve never seen it become this important,” she says of the Month; in fact, Pittsburgh is the only place she knows that makes the national Week of the Young Child into an entire month of events. (See a partial round-up of 2013 Month events for the rest of April here.)

Kidsburgh sat down with Figlar to talk about PAEYC programs and what motivates her to fight for the country’s most vulnerable population, to make sure that, as she believes, “all children should have the opportunity to learn from each other and with one another.”

What is the top mistake we as a community are making when it comes to early childhood education?
Not figuring out how to find a public funding stream that allows access for all children to higher quality programs. If a family can’t afford it, they’re sort of on their own.

What are the most important things we should do as a community to help the situation?
It’s critically important that children be put in early childhood classrooms. Secondly, as a society we have to have opportunities for parents to learn what it means to be a parent — access to classes to understand these amazing babies they are bringing into the world. We focus too much sometimes on parents who are struggling. We also need to think about family-friendly policies in our workplaces, in our communities, that allow families to spend time with their children. Family engagement is critically important. Lastly, we need to invest in the teacher who works with the youngest children. Their average wage is only $9 an hour across the state. The majority of women, and they are women, have teacher’s certifications and bachelor’s degrees.

What happens to kids when education is not emphasized enough at the youngest ages?
Unfortunately, when children don’t have access to high-quality experiences it becomes hard for them to thrive. They have a harder time trying to understand how to be with other children. Their language skills aren’t as strong. When children are not surrounded by activity and play and an optimum curriculum, we’ve lost the opportunity to build strong foundations for all their learning. For some families, we’re constantly trying to gain that back.

How does PAEYC educate parents, and where can parents find PAEYC active in the field?
We work really hard to educate parents through their children’s teachers. Parents can find us in the community either virtually or at community events. We serve a 10-county region, so we like to get out there where parents are. If they’re a parent who is spending time at home we have resources for them to find out why reading is important, why engaging in conversation is so critically important.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget seems to increase or hold steady the funds that serve early childhood and K-12 education. Are you pleased? Or isn’t the fight over?
We are thankful for the increases. However, over the past two years we’ve seen cuts in early childhood education, so the increase is just getting us back to where we were in 2009-10. These investments need to happen every year. The other important thing to note, even with PA being one of the states that has really invested dollars in early childhood education, only 18 percent of three and four year olds are being reached — and there are 4,000 kids on the waiting list for the state Pre-K Counts program and over 6,000 kids on a waiting list for a child-care subsidy today. We’re only serving a small percent of our youngest children and our most vulnerable children.

What programs out there in our community are doing things right?
Across the greater Pittsburgh region there are hundreds of programs participating in Keystone Stars and that are PAEYC accredited. Keystone Stars is Pennsylvania’s voluntary quality rating system. The higher star level shows a parent that this program has expended time and resources to be at a higher level. We tell parents to look for programs at Star 3 and Star 4. Those are the programs with learning at every moment of every day. They are dedicated to ongoing quality. Every experience of every day is valuable and they use them to help children grow. They are also extremely dedicated to the families. They give us peace of mind while we are working that our children are in the best places ever.

What are some of the most important PAEYC initiatives that people ought to know about but probably don’t realize?
I don’t know if people realize we provide close to 800 hours of professional development every year to early childhood educators, and that every day of the week a PAEYC staff member is having a conversation with an early childhood educator. We know what parents need, what they are asking teachers, so we’re grassroots. I also don’t know how much people know the time we spend advocating for these programs, getting elected officials to see firsthand why it’s important to invest in young children. Third, there is behind the scenes community work we’re involved in with other nonprofits to make Pittsburgh “Kidsburgh,” such as through playground builds and working in neighborhoods like Homewood and bringing the Imagine Playground out to communities. If little kid are involved or their parents or caregivers, PAEYC is probably involved.

How can people get involved if they have young kids — and even if they don’t?
By becoming a member. You do not have to be an early childhood professional. We think it’s really important for parents and people without kids to be members. You can reach out to your elected official. They want to hear from you. You can also volunteer at the many events we have. Giving back is always great. Also, think about how to help PAEYC with your contribution, because that will be given back to the community.

How important is the Month of the Young Child today?
It is just as important and I hope even more important. Over the years we’ve been able to rally the Pittsburgh community to celebrate with us. Other organizations call us and say, “This is what we’re doing.” It’s also more important than ever because I think we understand that the time from birth to five is a critical time for brain development. Having a month to get that word out is critically important. This is not something to solve — we continue to talk about it and we continue to invest in it, in everybody who is born every year. It will always be important to celebrate.

Where is the education of young children headed in the future?
This is the time for PAEYC to rally around the president’s vision of providing a high-quality early childhood education for all children as we heard about in the State of the Union. At PAEYC, we see ourselves as trying to be the folks who will work with all the other folks to really be Kidsburgh, to shape policy and make Pittsburgh the best place to be on earth for kids.

Photographs by John Altdorfer

Marty Levine