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How San Francisco Is Graduating More Black Early Educators — and Why It Matters

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A person holds out a black, green, yellow and red striped graduation stole with the words "Class of 2023" written on it.
Graduate Djimon Asberry poses for a photo outside of the Bayview Opera House in San Francisco on July 14, 2023, before a graduation ceremony for the Black Early Childhood Educator Career Pipeline. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

One sunny morning in mid-July, dozens of people filled the Bayview Opera House, in the heart of San Francisco’s historically Black neighborhood, to celebrate the 39 women and men who graduated from a training program for Black early childhood educators. The audience sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” watched Mayor London Breed deliver the commencement address, and cheered as the graduates walked across the stage to receive their certificate of completion — each one wearing graduation stoles with the words “Black Grads Matter.”

Their achievements were a cause for celebration because of the high expectations riding on this city-funded program: to increase the number of Black early educators in San Francisco so they can help Black infants, toddlers and preschoolers gain the skills necessary to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

“This is about changing lives, this is about changing the future of African Americans in San Francisco,” the mayor said at the graduation ceremony, hailing the program as an effective investment of her signature Dream Keeper Initiative.

A person stands on stage and speaks at a podium with their hand raised.
Josiane Stokes sings ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ during a graduation ceremony for the Black Early Childhood Educator Career Pipeline at the Bayview Opera House in San Francisco on July 14, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Creating a Black early childhood educator pipeline

Breed and Supervisor Shamann Walton co-founded the initiative in 2021 after the police killing of George Floyd sparked demands for police reform and a rethinking of policies that contributed to decades of inequities (PDF) and the decline of San Francisco’s Black population. They began by steering $60 million annually in Police Department funding toward helping Black residents start businesses and take out loans to buy homes. At the time, Walton called the initiative “a first step towards true reparations for the Black community here in San Francisco.”

About $1.6 million from that fund was also set aside to support the Pipeline for Black Early Childhood Educator pilot program. Je Ton Carey, who oversees the program for the nonprofit Children’s Council San Francisco, said it’s already showing promising results. Over the past two years, 62 out of about 80 participating students obtained associate teaching permits in early childhood education from City College of San Francisco and have gone on to work in classrooms, start their own family child care business or pursue higher degrees. Recently, the city approved an additional two years of funding for the program.

Child Care Costs

“This is huge, and why that’s important is because when you look at the data, when you look at the research, you see the decline of folks entering this field,” Carey said.

Even though there’s high demand for well-trained early childhood educators, low pay can make it hard to attract or retain people in the profession. Fewer students are enrolling in early childhood education programs, according to a 2021 survey of 400 colleges (PDF) conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and some colleges stopped offering early education certification programs because they don’t want to steer their students into careers that don’t pay a living wage.

To bring more Black students into the profession, San Francisco’s pipeline program covers tuition, provides $10,000 in stipends, laptops, a flexible class schedule, regular check-ins with a case manager and other forms of support over the course of 10 months.

For some of the program’s participants, however, the stipend and free classes they received through the training wasn’t enough to offset the high cost of living in San Francisco. Twenty-three out of 40 students in the first cohort dropped out of the pipeline program, many of them citing financial reasons.

“These are folks who’ve been impacted by the housing crisis, impacted by economic conditions that have pushed them out of San Francisco and they’re hoping that this opportunity will stabilize them,” Carey said.

In the second year, 39 out of 40 students stuck it out. Carey thinks more students succeeded because the program provided more help, such as transportation and child care during classes. One student, for example, was experiencing homelessness. Carey said her staff helped the woman find temporary housing until she was able to graduate and find work at a child care center.

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Why ‘Black Grads Matter’

San Francisco is trying to fix the broader early education workforce issue by using a local business tax to both pay teachers higher salaries and to lower child care costs for families. But in order to see that pay bump, teachers have to meet certain criteria: They must be trained to offer high-quality care and teaching to young kids, and agree to serve lower-income families.

The problem is only 10 out of 287 family child care businesses that meet those requirements are Black-owned, according to the city’s Department of Early Childhood.

“That number is too low,” Carey said.

The disparity underscores the need to diversify the workforce, she said, because all children, and especially Black children, benefit from having Black role models in the classroom.

Research shows that Black students who have even one Black teacher during elementary school are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college and less likely to be removed from the classroom as a form of discipline.

“There’s something about affirming a child’s culture when there is a teacher that represents them in a classroom … that understands their experiences, their family … there’s something around that that has impacted Black children’s success,” Carey said.

A black, green, yellow and red striped graduation stole with the words "Class of 2023" and "Black Grads Matter" written on it.
Graduate Maryetta Jefferson, 60, poses for a photo outside of the Bayview Opera House in San Francisco on July 14, 2023, before a graduation ceremony for the Black Early Childhood Educator Career Pipeline. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The hope is that having more Black early educators will help narrow persistent educational disparities in San Francisco. The most recent data from San Francisco Unified School District (PDF) shows only 43.8% of Black children were deemed ready for kindergarten, compared to nearly 70% of white and 67.6% of Asian American children.

Kindergarten readiness is a major concern among education advocates and policymakers because research shows children who enter kindergarten behind are likely to stay behind throughout their educational careers (PDF). At SFUSD, Black students graduate high school and attend college at lower rates than the district’s Asian American and white students.

A panel of early education experts formed by the Children’s Council concluded in a 2021 report (PDF) that the city’s early education systems weren’t supporting Black children enough.

Because 90% of a child’s brain develops during the first five years of life, the report said, Black children need high-quality early education and care because it “can serve as a positive intervention that allows a child’s brain to overcome the stresses of poverty, hunger, violence, housing instability and economic racism.”

The onus falls on Black early educators, then, to nurture these children and chart their social-emotional, cognitive and physical development to ensure they have the foundational skills for kindergarten, said Dr. Patricia Sullivan, who taught most of the classes to this year’s program cohort.

‘I found a passion that I didn’t know I had’

Like some of the students in the cohort, Sullivan started out providing child care out of her home before she went back to school to obtain degrees in developmental psychology and early childhood education.

The importance of being a Black teacher in the classroom, and being the first in her family to graduate to college, isn’t lost on Sullivan.

“For some students in classes that I teach at [San Francisco State University and City College], I’m the first Black professor they’ve ever seen,” she said. “For this group, it was really important to not only show them that someone could be in higher education and be Black, but that, you know, this stuff is not as hard as you think.”

Besides teaching 12 core units of child growth and development to the cohort, Sullivan facilitated discussions about the Black experience and how to respond to and care for children who have experienced neglect, abuse, violence, family separation, racism and other traumas. Emerging research has found that toxic stress from these types of trauma can disrupt children’s brain development and undermine their ability to learn.

“First, we talked about how we got this way. And then, how do we find a way to make sure that when we’re helping kids grow, that we are avoiding some of these dangerous pitfalls, barriers and situations that could cause trauma and how could we get around them? And then if we can’t get around them, how do we help people get past them?”

Among this year’s cohort is Djimon Asberry. The 25-year-old said those lessons validated her decision to become an early educator. Asberry had plans to become a nurse after graduating from a historically Black college in east Texas two years ago, but a summer job caring for babies and toddlers at a daycare made her realize that she could make a difference in a child’s life.

“I found a passion that I didn’t know I had,” she said.

In the pipeline program, Asberry said, having a Black professor and an all-Black cohort created a supportive environment where everyone pushed each other to do their best.

“It’s not ‘no, you’re not going to finish,’ you’re going to finish, you’re going to be successful,” she said. “Because they understand everybody has a life, everybody goes through things but they still push and encourage you and check on you every month to make sure your mind and mental [health] is correct so you’re able to finish.”

Asberry recently got a job as a substitute teacher at a Head Start program, but she’s thinking of taking more classes so she can one day open her own daycare.

A group of African-American women pose for a photo in a large indoor space.
The graduating class and San Francisco Mayor London Breed at a graduation ceremony for the Black Early Childhood Educator Career Pipeline at the Bayview Opera House in San Francisco on July 14, 2023. (Courtesy of Children's Council of San Francisco)

Another student was Sullivan’s own 35-year-old son, Matthew, who had been helping out at his mother’s daycare, Baby Steps Nature School, for years before enrolling in the pipeline program. He said although he went to art school and has a bachelor’s degree in Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration, he wants to one day run the family business.

“I just think that there’s value in doing this kind of work,” he said.

The infants under his care “make this worthwhile because I get to see them grow. I get to see them go from being little sprouts to tall giants that can actually change the world.”

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