As I continue my travels around Nebraska to meet and renew friendships with alumni of the first three classes of the Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy (PLA). I made the easy drive into Grand Island to meet with Robin Dexter (PLA Class 1), associate superintendent of Grand Island Public Schools (GIPS). I heard about her fascinating journey to early childhood education and all the things she sees intersecting with the work, including her skill as a leadership coach for educators. It was interesting to learn about the kinds of early childhood challenges faced by the public school system. I’ve often assumed they had more resources and less of the population to serve. Our conversation left me with a very different view. Robin is heavily invested in the mission and is intent on addressing cracks in the GIPS system that disproportionally affect families experiencing poverty or structural racism. It would be easy to get discouraged, but she—as we say—intends to stay on the bus! It helps that she has an adorable dog. I know because I insisted on seeing the pictures.
Saffron Buettner (PLA Class 2) has a sassy side to go with her nurturing personality, exactly the qualities she needs in her multi-dimensional role as early childhood consultant, trainer, and executive director of the Hall County Community Collaborative (HCCC). Saffron also has an office situation that could be the set of a quirky office comedy. She met me at the door with a smile and ushered me into a massive expanse of empty office cubicles. She gestured to the left. “My office is this way.” In the windowed corner of this lights-off megaplex of desks was Saffron’s cozy workspace. From here, she coordinates countless projects for the HCCC. She was hosting auditors when I stopped by. From grant projects to educator training, she has a bird’s-eye view of the logistics and gaps in the work. Her co-worker April Sundberg (PLA Class 3) is a powerful part of the awareness they are bringing to ECE issues in Hall County. Both have teamed up to present to different officials and influencers, with great success. They’re truly “teamwork makes the dreamwork” in action. (Look for an upcoming blog post by these two about an important community partnership coming up!)
The hour flew by when I met up with Alexandra Dillon (PLA Class 1) at a coffee shop in Kearney. We could have spent more time talking and dreaming up good things together for the community there. Over her years of work and in her current role as the early childhood coordinator at ESU 10, Alexandra has developed an ever-expanding vision for family and early childhood issues. Her work constantly reinvents itself to partner with those who are often left out of the conversations and, by default, out of the support systems. Her collaboration with Spanish-speaking providers and families is making an impact. In fact, she was recognized with the 2021 Entrepreneurial Spirit Award from the Center for Rural Affairs because of that work. We spent our time talking about more ways to elevate the voices of providers and families as well as reinvigorate the advocates and community stakeholders. Alexandra should teach a crash course on deep listening. I left our time together feeling like we’d known each other for much longer than a few months of exchanged emails.
The last stop on my whirlwind tour was with Libbi Harsh and Erin Small (PLA Class 3), a tandem powerhouse of Sixpence coaches partnering with the Kearney Public Schools. They office out of the Bright Futures Preschool at the Kearney Education Center. The building is a fascinating work in progress. Libbi and Erin met me in the chic new front office before Coordinator Megan Schmidt took me on a tour of the building, currently undergoing construction. The building is a time travelers dream with different rooms leading to different parts of the past century. From the modern, new conference rooms to a classroom with an actual 4-foot-tall fireplace topped with engraving (Erin’s favorite room), it’s a magical place to bring kids and educators together. I discovered that Libbi and Erin are another treasure trove of information and insight into both Sixpence and Step Up to Quality. They can articulate what is working and what needs to be addressed with clarity and I’m wildly excited that they’re part of this advocacy team. They’re on the ground in the community and I would believe it if they had down by memory the exact words to use when educating the community on the need and benefit of these programs. With two delightfully different personalities, they provide a compelling argument for why this work is needed in the community, particularly for those most affected by gaps in early child care and education.
Source of encouragement
No zoom meeting or news article could have conveyed all the impact, vitality and commitment I witnessed during my meetings with PLA alums in York, Stromsburg, Hastings, Grand Island and Kearney. Every person who sat down with me has a schedule filled to the brim and responsibilities that are pressing. It’s humbling to get some time on their calendars. It was a reminder that the success of our advocacy mission is in the consistency and imagination of those who will not look away nor give up on Nebraska’s children and families. Our advocates are a constant source of encouragement to those of us in this work and they are clearly influencing at all the levels of power. Keep your eyes out for the initiatives and actions they’ll be starting this summer and into the fall. There is much good in the works. If only coffee shop walls could talk…