Mass. Early Ed Commissioner discusses department’s mission while in Pittsfield for YMCA event

Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Amy Kershaw was in Pittsfield Monday to attend a ribbon cutting ceremony for renovations to the Berkshire Family YMCA’s North Street facility. After becoming the department’s acting commissioner in March 2022, Kershaw assumed the permanent role in March of this year. Her work focuses on providing early education programing and resources to Massachusetts families and communities. After delivering remarks at the ribbon cutting, Kershaw spoke to WAMC about her office’s work and how it impacts Berkshire County.

KERSHAW: The Healey-Driscoll Administration has taken a huge priority focus on early childhood education. And our vision is that there’s equity and access in early childhood education for all families, which means our young learners are able to play and grow and thrive in environments like the one we see today that will absolutely support their healthy development while their parents can comfortably go off to work or return to work fueling the economy.

WAMC: I’m interested- Standing here in Pittsfield today in this center here, how does this fit into the larger fabric of early education across the commonwealth?

The challenges that we’re seeing across the commonwealth are being addressed in this center in the most amazing way. So, new capacity for families that are struggling to find childcare. 67% of the families here receive childcare financial assistance. Affordability is a major challenge for families. And then we see the partnership with Berkshire Community College, which is providing affordable access to higher education for our teachers to increase their educational attainment and get degrees and give back into the programs that they’re working in.

Now, when it comes to the folks working in early education, what do you see as far as their efforts to shore up pay, to make sure they’re being treated well by employers- How does your office play into that conversation?

We have an important role in making sure that we’re certifying and setting standards for teachers working in programs and also supporting the wages. So, one of the most important strategies we have is our Commonwealth Cares for Children program, which is a statewide grant program originally funded federally, now being supported by state dollars for the first time. And this gets funding directly into programs to be able to recruit and retain qualified staff, and also pay additional wages, signing bonuses, ways to be able to make sure that we can value the staff who are working on the programs and recruit new ones into the field.

What do you feel like is an underdiscussed or underreported aspect of early education that you’d like to see get a bigger profile?

That’s a great question. I mean, I think in a lot of ways, the momentum for early childhood education is the best we could have. We have support from the governor. We have support from the legislature. The business community is recognizing the critical nature of early childhood education to be able to recover from the pandemic. We are the workforce behind the workforce. And so, I think we’re having the moment to really recognize that investments in early childhood education are essential for the economic development now but also for the future generation.

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