In March, I had the opportunity to sit down with Susan Yang in a busy coffee shop at the University District. As college students chatted around us, Yang and I discussed a field that many don’t often think about: the early learning system.
Yang is the new executive director of the Denise Louie Education Center, which provides comprehensive support to children and families to ensure their readiness in entering the K-12 system. The Center offers numerous programs for family support, child development, and mental health services. Although Yang was appointed just a few months ago, she has extensive experience in the early learning education field and has been a community leader for many years. She and I talked about the central issues in API education, her new role, and how she’ll address the Center’s challenges.
Daniele Meñez: What past experiences or positions have prepared you for this role as the new executive director of the Denise Louie Education Center?
Susan Yang: I was in the learning field for 15 years. My first job in college was working for a Head Start program in Boston. I learned a lot of aspects regarding organizations, non-profits, and foundations. So I wasn’t 100 percent sure that this [working at the Center] was the right move for me. But reflecting on my career, one thing I hadn’t done was a direct service organization that worked with intermediaries. I like being much closer to the families in that I’m helping others help the families. Now I can just walk in to a classroom and see how they’re doing. I can really see the kids that I’ve been working with more directly, policy-wise.
Meñez: What challenges does the Center face?
Yang: Well, in terms of early childhood education, there are a few things that we face. First of all, there’s an increased focus on preschool—especially with Obama’s proposal for universal pre-school. The City of Seattle also added a preschool plan with more funding, and Washington State is also interested in increasing preschool spots for lower-income children. So because of all of that, we have to learn how to navigate through all the different opportunities, because there are so many different structures within them.
We’re trying to offer the best quality service to children and families, and quality costs money. We have a set amount of money that we receive, and it’s a struggle to retain teachers because we can’t pay them a lot. And for 80 percent of the kids, English isn’t their first language. So the teachers do a lot to ensure a multicultural environment with support of the home language. They do their best to ensure they’re supporting the kids in the best possible way. Our biggest restriction is financial. Most of the teachers are almost full-time, and we want to pay them what we can for the hours that they’re working.
Meñez: What are your plans for your new role and how do you propose to address the previously mentioned challenges?
Yang: The reality is that all children deserve an equal opportunity. We as an organization feel that it’s our responsibility to give the children the best possible education. With so much focus on preschool, we’re concerned that there’s not enough focus on children who are younger than that age group. So we’re trying to think more about how we can grow our Early Head Start program as a feeder to our Head Start and preschool programs.
We’re always on the lookout for facilities in Seattle—it’s very hard to find due to cost. A lot of research also suggests that children should be in full-day care, but we’re a largely half-day program, so we have to figure out how to meet the changing climate and desire to have full-day preschool slots. We also have to ensure that we’re able to meet our budget every year, so we’re thinking of creative ways to retain the teachers we have and pay them what they’re worth.
Meñez: What are the main issues in education that affect API families today?
Yang: The minimum wage. If it goes up, then there’s concern about how you’re going to pay people across the board, and whether the families will still be eligible for the services—because families who are being paid $15 an hour (for forty hours a week) could likely be considered “overqualified” for our services (according to the Federal Poverty Guidelines). There are also immigration policy challenges that we have to think about. There are families who aren’t trying to access the Center because they don’t want to be found. State money is also an issue because most of the money will be invested towards the K-12 system.
So the Center’s challenge is that we have enough funding to do a good job, but not enough to do a great one. The difference between good and great is largely what funds we have to raise every year.
Meñez: Do you have anything else that you would like to say?
Yang: Early learning is fundamentally one of the most important things in society today. We have to educate the public that it’s a good investment if invested in correctly. It’s cliché, but it really does take a village to raise a kid. We all have to ensure that children today are doing well because they’re the ones who will be doing our roles and helping us in the future. We have to do our job now so that we can prepare them to be those leaders. We can be really shortsighted in the decisions we make, but the kids are where it’s at. The younger we start, the better off we are as a community.