Welcome back to our new Q&A series, where we are checking in with Pittsburgh’s movers, shakers, thinkers, and remakers of learning throughout the city and region.
We caught early education expert Michelle Figlar in a moment of major transition. The executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children is headed to Harrisburg this month, as she has been named deputy secretary for the Office of Child Development and Early Learning at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
What are you most proud of about your work at PAEYC?
After nine years at PAEYC, one of the two things that I am most proud of is that we have built an incredible team and incredible partnerships in the region. When I think about PAEYC, the first words that come to my mind are team and collaboration. We stayed true to that mission, from the minute I walked in the door, that we would be a good partner. And I am really proud of that.
Is there a specific educator or organization from the region whose work or approach is emblematic of
what PAEYC does well?
I think that for us it’s all about the work of Fred Rogers—the Fred Rogers Company, and now the Fred Rogers Center, two of our very good partners. I think about how Fred Rogers always listened to the children and he listened to the parents and he listened to the providers. At the core, that’s what PAEYC wants to stay true to.
How did you experience being part of the Remake Learning Network influence your work at PAEYC?
Gregg Behr and the Grable Foundation bring people from very different sectors to the table. Early on I got to meet Illah Nourbakhsh from Carnegie Mellon University—a robotics genius. Being able to sit in a space with him and think about innovative ideas that could really impact kids, families, and their teachers—that’s the space that allows PAEYC to be innovative, to meet people we never would have met. What are the chances of an early childhood organization meeting a robotics lab and really making something wonderful happen?
What will your priorities be in your new role at the Pennsylvania Department of Education?
For me it’s going to be about the governor’s vision and making sure all kids have access to high-quality early learning. My priority right away is: How do I help my team put that at the front of their work and really think differently?
What are you most excited about?
What I’m excited about is bringing some of the great innovation that we have been able to pilot and really get to work here in western Pennsylvania to the state level. How do we bring these partnerships to scale? When you have an unlikely partnership with a place like Carnegie Mellon University, you think differently about what is possible. How do we make sure we are listening to those voices?
As the issue gains traction nationally, many advocates feel we may be at a turning point around early childhood policy. Do you agree? And, if so, what signs or markers would you point to?
It’s an exciting time to be stepping into this position because I think policymakers get it. It’s not about convincing them anymore. Now it’s about designing things and finding the resources to make it happen. Federally, you have the Obama administration placing a huge priority on universal pre-K. You also have the Child Care and Development Block Grant being reauthorized, which gives states the opportunity to think differently about how they serve families and children who receive subsidized child care. That says to me that young children have become a priority. You also have a lot of national research, even newer brain research. And then across the country you see more and more states investing more and more dollars in the earliest time of life. And we see policy that is rethinking K-3, that is actually embracing early childhood.
What is the toughest part of the work you do?
At least for the state of Pennsylvania, it is finding the resources to be able to invest in these programs. Pennsylvania has a budget deficit, so how do we convince folks to make sure that this is a priority?
We also have to invest in our [early education] workforce so we can make sure we have the best and the brightest and make sure they are compensated so they will stay in the field. I think as a country we really need to think about how we recruit and retain a workforce that can really ensure that children are getting the highest quality of care.
What will you most miss about Pittsburgh?
I think what I’m going to miss on a day-to-day basis is just the natural way that people collaborate. It’s just so easy here.
I’ll also miss walking to school with my kids. And I’m going to miss just being in my neighborhood. I love Hazelwood—that’s where I grew up. I’m going to miss not seeing the redevelopment of Hazelwood in real time.
Photo of Michelle Figlar/New America Foundation