This is the debut of “Leading the Way,” a series featuring the next generation of leaders in the field of early education and care.

Michele D’Ambrosio
Justin Pasquariello

For Justin Pasquariello and Michele D’Ambrosio, leading the way in early education means making substantial investments in people.

Last year, Pasquariello became the executive director of the East Boston Social Centers (EBSC), a 100-year-old nonprofit, multiservice agency that runs a number of programs, including an early learning program, that’s run by D’Ambrosio the early learning administrator.

The two administrators run their early learning program with the supports found in a school system, providing transportation for children and a career ladder for staff. And they’re leading the way on public policy, talking about the next big policy steps for early education.

“We really need a paradigm shift in the United States, and we’ve done it in the past” Pasquariello says, noting that years ago the country expanded the definition of public education to include high school, and, eventually, kindergarten. It’s time now, he says, to do what other nations have done and recognize “the need for high-quality universal free (or at least affordable-to-all) early learning.”

But at EBSC, there’s no time to wait for other people’s paradigm shifts. The organization is busy setting an example by providing high-quality early education and care for a racially and economically diverse group of 150 children in four sites in East Boston and Chelsea — 93 to 100 percent are eligible for subsidized slots.

Investing in Children

“They learn through play, but we set up each area based on the developmental levels of children,” D’Ambrosio says of the children in her program. EBSC uses Teaching Strategies’ Gold curriculum, an observation-based assessment system. “So if we do their assessment and it says that Rocco needs work on fine motor skills, we’ll make sure that activities in this area are available to him. And every six months, children are assessed again.”

Rocco, it turns out, is Pasquariello’s son’s name, and he attends an EBSC program that happily caters to his love of rock and roll music. Another teacher has introduced yoga. And there are community-based field trips to local places such as a small community farm in East Boston.

“Each site has an on-site cook,” D’Ambrosio says, “so we cook based on the needs of children and their allergies.”

Recognizing the problem of preschool expulsions, EBSC has become something of a provider of last resort, welcoming children who haven’t been able to stay in other programs. A social worker helps with this effort, which keeps expulsion rates low. And the organization also brings early intervention programs on site to support children and families.

“Many children and families have been with us for generations,” Pasquariello says. “Several of our staff grew up in our programs and have built their careers here.”

Investing in Staff

For D’Ambrosio a key aspect of the work has been building a meaningful career ladder.

Every year, all Early Learning Center staff complete an Individual Professional Development Plan. They set educational goals for themselves and create a timeframe for their professional growth.

“We provide a lot of onsite coaching,” D’Ambrosio explains. “Each site has a site coordinator who provides coaching and supervision. If you come in as an assistant teacher, there is opportunity for you to move up.”

Staff provide input on topics they’d like more training on. A recent full-day, on-site training program focused on working with children on the autism spectrum.

The organization also has limited funding available to help staff pay for professional development programs, conferences and college courses.

“And we’ll help guide staff through the financial aid system, so they can apply for the EEC scholarships,” D’Ambrosio adds, referring to the state’s scholarships for early educators pursuing higher education degrees.

It’s a path D’Ambrosio has walked herself, having earned a associate degree in early childhood education from Bunker Hill Community and a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies from Cambridge College. Pasquariello has a bachelor’s degree as well as two master’s degrees in business and public administration from Harvard.

Moving Forward 

“Unfortunately, there’s this bias people have toward preserving what we have, more so than expanding into new areas even when the evidence is really clear that there’s a need to do that,” Pasquariello says. That’s why it’s crucial to keep sharing this evidence with Americans to encourage them to invest in young children.

“Part of that is paying leaders for young children and families a living wage,” he adds. “We know the importance of having high-quality staff. Compensation is important for that — and also just a fairness issue: we shouldn’t have staff needing to receive public benefits when they’re working full time.”

“The field is changing. Staff are expected to have degrees. But we don’t have the money available to pay people at a degree level,” D’Ambrosio adds.

“A more universal system would provide more continuity for children,” Pasquariello says. We know in public schools that when children move out of classrooms or have disruptions to their education, it sets them back significantly. And the same is true in early learning. But unfortunately, we have systems that are geared toward punishing parents if they’re not meeting certain objectives. I understand the policy objectives, but if parents lose access to child care that can harm kids.”

What should policymakers know about early education?

Pasquariello says that he’s excited to see the emergence of more two-generation programs that support parents and children, but many of these efforts need more public funding. “There’s a lot of evidence that parental progress is associated with children doing better.” He’d also love to see increased support for transportation to early learning programs — in part because EBSC subsidized the transportation it provides to children.

And Pasquariello and D’Ambrosio both say that families need more generous parental leave policies, so they can care for newborn children.

Why are they in the field of early education?

“There’s so much evidence that high-quality early learning is probably the best investment that we can make as a society and yet we don’t make enough of an investment in it,” Pasquariello says. “So I’m excited to be in the field both for us to directly provide that high-quality early learning for kids, and also to move toward polices that ensure that more children can have this.”

“To make a difference in a child’s life, that’s why I’m in the field,” D’Ambrosio says. “It’s important to set the foundation for these children to succeed when they enter school.”