“Leading the Way,” is a series featuring the next generation of leaders in the field of early education and care.
When TeeAra Dias was 18 and working for Bright Horizons, a corporate child care provider, she asked herself a career question:
“Do I want to live in a birthday bear suit?”
Dias had been dressing up as a bear to provide entertainment at the children’s parties that were held at Bright Horizons.
She knew she had a passion for serving children. A Boston native, she had worked as one of the city’s summer youth employment “Red Shirts” at the Little People’s Playhouse in Roslindale. But was life in the bear suit satisfying enough?
To answer this question, Dias decided to get more education. She continued to work at Bright Horizons and attended Mt. Ida College where she met Eunice Perry, who ran Mt. Ida’s Longfellow Preschool Program.
Perry was “a mentor and really helped me better understand that early education was more than just playing with children, that I was actually a child’s first teacher. I was the first person who really got to observe and identify milestones that children were achieving, and families relied on me for guidance, so the relationship piece was important.”
Inspired by this insight, Dias stayed at Bright Horizons and climbed the career ladder from birthday bear to teacher associate to lead teacher to director.
In 2015, when Dias’ teenage daughter had grown more independent, Dias asked herself another question:
“Well what are you going to do with your life, TeeAra?”
Dias had spent 19 happy years at Bright Horizons and could have stayed. But then she heard about a new job, working as the project manager for Boston’s federally funded Preschool Expansion — or PEG — Grant. She applied and got the job.
“It was my opportunity to take a passion that I loved, which was working with community-based programs, and also move closer to Boston public schools,” where Dias had been educated.
While many other communities were using their PEG grants to expand access to programs, Boston opted to use its grant to expand quality.
To do this, Dais worked with 12 community-based preschool programs — including Nurtury, the YMCA, and Paige Academy — to expand quality in 15 classrooms. Essentially, she built 12 bridges to firmly connect each program to the public school system so that low-income families and children could make a seamless transition from their neighborhood preschool to their public school.
One example: “We wanted our programs to use the Boston Public Schools Focus on K-1 curriculum,” Dias says. “But we recognized that this curriculum is for a 6 ½ hour day, and the programs were serving kids for up to 10 hours.” Making these and other adjustments required clear communication and savvy strategizing so that the programs could develop uniformly high-quality classrooms — but with enough flexibility to meet local needs.
In January of this year, Dias took another career step forward and became Boston Public School’s director of Universal Pre-K. In this position, she focuses on quality and access.Her goal is to reach the 1,500 to 1,800 children in the city — especially low-income and underserved children — who do not have access to full-day pre-K.
Along the way, Dias has learned valuable lessons, among them:
• early educators have to keep up with Boston’s changing needs and demographics, from the city’s changing street life to immigration trends to the opioid crisis
• “Never assume that you’ve got it figured out,” she says. Relationships and communication with families and community-based providers are essential to building high-quality pre-K.
• “One of the lessons we learned for universal pre-K is that you have to look at the program as a whole. You can’t just say I’m going to support this preschool classroom, and I’m going to make sure these lead teachers get coaching and professional development. Instead, in order to adjust quality around NAEYC and QRIS, you have to support the program as a whole,” and
• “The stronger the family engagement,” when families first explore pre-K programs, “the higher the enrollment you see” in these programs.
What could Boston’s pre-K programs look like five years from now?
Dias hopes to see a pre-K system that is effectively aligned with Boston’s public schools. Then, no matter what door parents went through — the Y, a public school, or the Boys and Girls Club — they would find a creative, high-quality pre-K setting. And as children moved from community pre-K programs and into schools, any social services they have would follow with them.
“We want to get to the point where when we say there’s no wrong door, that’s the truth.”
In addition, Dias would like to see of Boston’s pre-K programs work creatively with the whole child and the whole family, being mindful about meeting the needs of the parents, grandparents, relatives, and foster parents who are all part of young children’s lives.
In 2014, Mayor Walsh solicited feedback from 1,600 families to inform Boston’s pre-K work. In 2018 and beyond, Boston will continue to ask families about their needs. And Dias encourages parents and caregivers to share their input and concerns with their preschool providers. Given this, when we asked Dias what she wanted families to know about her work, it was no surprise that she simply and powerfully said:
“That we hear them.”