Patricia Hnatiuk. (Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children)

“It’s teacher as advocate. You’re advocating for the child.”

With these words to her class – Seminar in Leadership, Policy and Advocacy – at Wheelock College, Patricia Hnatiuk sums up the role of the early educator. “What knowledge do teachers need to work with all kinds of children and families?” she asks. “What do families need from early education programs?”

The issues that Hnatiuk brings to her undergraduate students have been at the heart of a four-decade career in early education that began when she co-founded the Palfrey Community Preschool in Watertown in 1971. “It was a time of great excitement,” Hnatiuk recalls. “We were working on building better quality from the start.”

Now, in addition to teaching in the Department of Early Childhood Education at Wheelock, Hnatiuk manages the Together for Quality (T4Q) Field Coach Program for the commonwealth’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). The Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) launched QRIS in January to define the elements of quality, help programs improve and, ultimately, provide valuable information to parents. I talked with Hnatiuk over breakfast in Cambridge one morning. (She reveals a favorite children’s book at the end of this blog post.)

Hnatiuk developed a Wheelock graduate course that trains field coaches who then mentor the staff of QRIS grantees in EEC regions across the state.  Together for Quality is part of a statewide collaborative coordinated by Wheelock’s Aspire Institute to advance QRIS in Massachusetts. To Hnatiuk, mentoring education and the “train the trainer” model offers a chance to reach programs and providers most in need of support to move up in the QRIS levels.

“I’ve always believed that we have to reach across all program types to become part of the process,” Hnatiuk says. “I am supportive of systems that are inclusive, and Massachusetts is now striving to be inclusive. Supporting and sending in coaches to programs that want them to be there provides us with a chance to improve child outcomes.”

In addition to co-founding the Palfrey preschool, Hnatiuk worked for a decade as teacher, co-director and director of the Thorndike Street School in Cambridge, an early education and care program.

“We created an intentional multicultural and anti-bias philosophy,” Hnatiuk says. “It was popular. We had a long waiting list. We all learned from each other-parents, teachers and children. It was a diverse learning community with a culture of mentoring.”

The importance of the education, training and compensation of the early childhood workforce has long been a central theme of Hnatiuk’s career. She has been an instructor at Wheelock since 1988, where, since 2006, she has coordinated the college’s Annual Community Dialogues on Early Education and Care, a public policy conference. She also spent a decade directing child care training programs at Wheelock. Hnatiuk serves on the steering committee of the Boston Alliance for Early Education and co-founded the Massachusetts Leadership Empowerment Action Project (MassLEAP). She co-founded the National Worthy Wage Campaign with the Center for the Child Care Workforce in Washington, DC.

Hnatiuk also was a researcher and Boston site coordinator for the National Child Care Staffing Study in 1988-89. “Low wages [for early educators] hurt children because there is a correlation between teacher turnover and child development,” Hnatiuk says. “Children’s social, emotional and language development is thwarted by staff turnover. The number one reason for teacher turnover is low wages.”

Now Hnatiuk is excited about the development of a career ladder for early educators that the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care endorsed at its May meeting. “We’re working with the Bessie Tartt-Wilson Initiative for Children and EEC to attach salaries to the career ladder,” Hnatiuk says. “It will only make a difference when the state makes it real.”

Hnatiuk is also supportive of the Educator and Provider Support (EPS) system of professional development that EEC launched last year. “I have high hopes for what can be accomplished through the EPS,” Hnatiuk says. “It’s regionally based and inclusive of all program types. However, it is woefully underfunded at this point. EPS provides the vehicle for early educators in regions to create a network and provide more access to higher education for students who have not traditionally had access.”

As much as Hnatiuk describes her journey as “a long, hard slog,” she points to signs of hope.

“We’ve come a long way in Massachusetts,” she says. “Change is really hard, really hard. Passing the legislation to create EEC and a state Board of Early Education was a major victory. We have the structure, but other states are ahead of us in professional development and providing compensation that matches professional development requirements. There is recognition now that the state is going to have to provide more financial support. I think we’re getting there. We’re on the brink. But we have to keep on advocating if our vision for better quality and more equity in the workforce is to become reality.”

First Pages

Asked about a favorite children’s book, Hnatiuk mentions “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney, which happens to be one of my favorites, too. It’s the story of a woman’s quest to make the world more beautiful.

“I love Miss Rumphius,” Hnatiuk says. “She’s a role model for children about how to build a better world. She’s an independent woman role model. When kids turn 3 or 4, I give them that book.”

Here is the first page:

The Lupine Lady lives in a small house overlooking the sea.