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Q & A with Naya Patterson , ZERO TO THREE Fellows class of 2020–2022

1. Briefly describe the burning issue, need, or question that you are addressing through your fellowship and how it has come to mean so much to you.

Understanding the intersections between my personal and professional trajectories really puts in perspective the issues that mean the most to me and the work I do. Working with children and parents has allowed my passion to shine and propelled my career. At Generation Hope, I supported teen parents pursuing college degrees while also working collectively with their infant and toddler children to prepare them for kindergarten. For me as a child of a teen mom, and young parents generally, the opportunity to serve teen parents and support them through their higher education journey felt so right and rewarding. My parents did not pursue higher education, but they exemplified parent and family engagement to the highest extent and emphasized the importance of education from my foundational years through college. My experience with teen parents revealed in real time for me the many issues in our child care systems, gaps in school readiness, and social emotional support, let alone the challenges for young student parents. I took a keen interest in solutions for child care and more affordable access to early learning programs, especially by PreK3.

Through the fellowship and a transition in my career I’ve leaned into increasing family engagement for family success and increasing enrollment to ensure early learning and kindergarten readiness for 3-year-olds in Washington, DC. I now work at a DC Public Charter School, Ingenuity Prep, in Ward 8, which comprises DC’s most underserved neighborhoods. The school serves children in grades Prek3-8th grade. Serving in DC’s most underserved neighborhood is important. The children and families here deserve the same opportunities that are present across the District. With a myriad of challenges in the community and at homes, the relationships started here at school, with children and families, make a huge impact on a family’s success and a student’s journey. This is why family engagement, coupled with the early learning and intervention that early childhood education provides, is so critical.

2. How have the current events, crises, and societal upheavals impacted your work and/or your perspective of the work ahead of you?

There are so many things going on in our country right now that it is hard to keep up at times. No matter what, the work must continue, and even increase. Since 2020, we’ve experienced what feels like even heavier political unrest and social injustice on top of a global pandemic that truthfully exacerbated and shed a light on many things we already knew. There were already disparities in education, technology, access to food, medical care, etc. The pandemic revealed the Band-aids that society often uses for quick fixes, without addressing the real roots of the problem. In education, children of all ages and grades have been impacted heavily in the past 18 months, and we know that the pandemic has widened the academic disparities, especially for our youngest learners. In my work, I’ve seen a huge impact on enrollment for PreK3 in the District. For all schools across the city, PreK3 enrollment has been low and lagging for the upcoming school year. There seems to be understandable hesitancy from some families for sending our youngest to school for the first time under these circumstances. We know how important it is to have our 3-year-olds in early learning programs and spaces to jump start their success academically, socially, and emotionally. We cannot afford for them to be delayed in their journeys for another year. Family engagement definitely took a hit as well and makes my work this school year that much more important. The inability to engage and share space together in-person, in combination with technology fatigue, was a major impact. This year, I’ve designed a program for our parents and families that will get to the core of what families want, and need, while being skill focused. I am excited to begin this new program for families and believe it will take our family engagement to the next level.

3. If you could share one message with those who would like to work with or support teen parents, what would it be? What would you like our members to understand or recognize about the families with whom you work?

Supporting teen parents is an amazing opportunity. I’ve learned from the remarkable teen parents I’ve worked with what perseverance looks like, but also how isolation feels. So many of them have been isolated from the people they love and even from our society, just because they became parents young. They just want genuine, real, support that can be trusted. Many times it’s just a listening ear or a hand on their shoulder. For anyone wanting to work with or support teen parents, I’d say to simply think about when you were a teen. What advice did you want? What guidance would you have appreciated? What do you know now, that you wish you knew then? All of the answers to those questions, and thinking in that frame of mind, often prove that you have value to provide and support to give to a teen parent.

The families I work with now are not just teen parents, but parents of all ages and experiences that they bring. It’s important to recognize that families just want to be heard and seen and reassured that their child is in the best hands. By advocating truthfully and serving genuinely, we can show up for them.

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