50th Anniversary Member of the Month

Throughout 2017, we will highlight a few of the our members who have made a lasting impact over the years.

Please check back in future months to learn more about some of our many outstanding members.

Sharon Easterling, Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children Executive Director (1994-2016)

Sharon Easterling is credited with growing First Up to the largest local NAEYC affiliate in the U.S., with 30 staff and an annual budget of $2.5 million—and setting the heartbeat of the organization that is pumping stronger than ever today.

Over the past three decades, First Up has paved the way for early childhood educators and advocates with its keen focus on improving quality in early education programs, with a particular emphasis on children impacted by poverty and other risks; and improving public investments so these gains could effectively be taken to scale and sustained.  Sharon helped generate a movement that is gaining momentum each day and has helped to define what quality means in the Delaware Valley.

In 1994, Sharon, who began her career as an educator, became the first professional staff member of First Up.  Under her leadership, First Up grew to host the largest early childhood professional development conference with 1,500 attendees each year; developed a quality improvement initiative that helped hundreds of early childhood programs reach higher standards in Keystone STARS and national accreditation, and mobilized thousands of early childhood professionals to advocate for increased public investments in quality programs.

Sharon’s chief focus at First Up and most notable accomplishments were in her efforts to increase access to high-quality early education, while spearheading professional development and fair wage and benefits for early childhood educators.

In 1997, Easterling led the planning team that designed Child Care Matters, which resulted in bringing T.E.A.C.H. to Pennsylvania, a program that enabled 2,000 childcare staff to earn professional degrees. In the initial roll out of Pre-K Counts, the first state funded pre-k program in PA, she led the City of Philadelphia’s work to ensure that 300 childcare staff met the requirements to become lead and assistant teachers.  In 1988, she founded a community-based organization, The Preschool Project, to respond to the early education and child care needs in an under-resourced community with high rates of poverty and low educational attainment.

“Fortunately, I was building on an extraordinary legacy that had begun in 1967 and was already a dynamic force for early childhood, even as an all-volunteer organization,” said Sharon Easterling, former Executive Director, First Up.  “These initiatives were born out of a necessity and while we have come a very long way they remain relevant today as degreed early childhood educators still aren’t paid on par with their K-12 colleagues, and more than two-thirds of PA kids still have no access to quality early education.”

Most recently, Sharon conceived the idea and secured a planning grant for a statewide campaign to scale up Pennsylvania’s investment in high-quality early childhood education; this effort became the widely recognized and highly successful Pre-K for PA campaign, endorsed by the leading early childhood advocacy organizations, public officials and almost 15,000 citizens across PA.  She also served as Co-Chair for the Mayor’s Commission on Universal Pre-K, which helped sprout the soda tax campaign, which is now funding the first Universal pre-K in Philadelphia.

We have won the public debate about the importance of our field – but now we must transform the field to deliver on the promise of high-quality ECE. Fixing compensation in early childhood education is completely do-able – on paper. The challenge will be during implementation, where the temptation is to serve more children rather than invest in higher salaries for the workforce. The math is inescapable. It costs more money to pay teachers better – money that could be used to serve more children. But over and over we heard in public testimony and even from other cities that have gone before us with massive Pre-K expansions, it is better to serve children well than to simply serve more children.

“Thankfully, Philadelphia has a strong and growing cadre of early childhood leaders who can carry the torch forward, and their time to lead is now. My hope and prayer for the city is that Pre-K in Philadelphia will become a model for the rest of the country by serving all young children with an early childhood workforce that is both highly skilled AND fairly compensated. As my successor, Carol Austin likes to say about our beloved Philadelphia, great things are meant to start here.”

Sharon has made an indelible mark in the field and in our hearts. Her spirit lives on as the heartbeat of First Up grows and the hard work of ensuring as quality expansion is underway, wages are in line with qualifications and education and, above all, quality is never sacrificed.

February Member of the Month: Alison Lutton, First Up Project Director to support NAEYC and NAFCC accreditation, First Higher Education Accreditation Director at NAEYC

Alison Lutton recalls very clearly when she first discovered First Up. As she tells it, the year was 1988 or so and she was a new family child care provider in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. Excited about her work, eager to learn more about it and to meet others who were doing it; she called a child care center in her neighborhood at the time, Bright Start. She recalls her nervousness, not sure what reception she would get. The director answered the phone, was warm and helpful, and invited her to come visit the center and observe any time.

“What amazing luck on my part – that director was First Up member Debbie Green, a leader in our early childhood community and now the director of The Parent Infant Center in West Philadelphia,” she recollects warmly.

Alison set a path to earn NAFCC accreditation, join NAEYC and First Up, volunteer for the First Up conference committee, and was invited to run for the First Up board before she says she even understood what a board did. “What a great learning experience!”

As Alison continued to grow and improve as a family child care provider, she realized that she needed to return to college. With a BA in social work she needed to learn more. Alison found an evening master’s degree program in early childhood education at Beaver College, now Arcadia University and enrolled.

“In another stroke of luck, one of my professors was Mary Daniel, another First Up member and leader in our community,” Alison told us. “I cannot imagine a more inspiring mentor. Her classes were challenging but supportive and the discussions deep. She hosted a small group of early childhood teachers who met monthly to talk about our work. We brought food, sat in a circle, and shared child anecdotes or artwork that was exciting or troubling to us. Mary listened and prompted, as we all learned how to help each other, apply child development knowledge, and reflect on our professional experiences while respecting child and family confidentiality.”

Alison began to go to national NAEYC conferences broadening her horizons again and meeting colleagues from all over the country.

The early 1990s was an exciting time for First Up. In 1994 we made the leap to hiring our first executive director, Sharon Easterling. Sharon was skilled at many things including fundraising, building strong staff teams, and developing programs meaningful to our community. That year she hired two part-time staff members: Liz Chilton as conference director and Alison as director of a project to support NAEYC and NAFCC program accreditation in the region. We had a tiny grant of $15,000 and used mentoring as our primary strategy.

“I worked with more incredible leaders in our field including Mary Graham and Sherilynn Kimble, directors of two of the first NAEYC accredited centers in Philadelphia, and Michele DiAddezio, one of the first NAFCC accredited family child care homes in our region,” said Alison. “I juggled three part time jobs: First Up, teaching evening classes at Community College of Philadelphia, and keeping my family child care home open 3 days a week.”

By 1999 Alison was in love with teaching early childhood teachers. When a fulltime faculty position opened up at Northampton Community College she and her husband moved to Bethlehem, PA. She participated in state workgroups that wrote our first PA Core Body of Knowledge. She joined ACCESS, the national professional association for early childhood faculty at associate degree programs and soon was on their national board as a regional representative, then treasurer and then president. She served on NAEYC advisory groups revising our national professional standards for early childhood teacher preparation and developing a new accreditation system for associate degree programs. And in 2006, Alison applied to be the first higher education accreditation director at NAEYC, was hired and headed to Washington, D.C. where she worked for NAEYC for ten years, directing the higher education accreditation work and working on grants and federal contracts creating resources and providing technical assistance to state early childhood PD systems.

Today, Alison works as a self-employed consultant, providing support to early childhood professional development initiatives around the country. It’s exciting to be in Philadelphia again, to reunite with First Up friends and this vibrant professional community!”

When asked to reflect on her own career Alison’s sentiments illustrate why we chose her as our 50th Anniversary February Member of the Month.

“I know that the doors to this profession opened because I joined First Up. Every First Up member that I met, every committee and work group I volunteered for, rewarded me with new knowledge and skills, new friendships, and new opportunities. My career has been so satisfying because of those children and families I served in 1990s and still know today, but also because I joined First Up 35 years ago and engaged with this wonderful early childhood community. It is an honor to be First Up member of the month. Thank you!”

Sherilynn Johnson Kimble has more than 35 years’ experience in education, administration and management. She specializes in early childhood education, providing services as a trainer, consultant, mentor, coach, and technical assistant.

She is passionate leader always striving to empower others. Currently an Instructor for Child Development Associate Certificate coursework , she also serves as a PD Specialist for the Council of Professional Recognition. She served as an adjunct faculty member at Community College of Philadelphia and Rutger’s University. Sherilynn served on the Professional Development Council of the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs. She has designed and facilitated an educational training series for parents and teachers and a Mentoring Project for Early Childhood Directors and Teachers. She has served and continues to serve on local boards dedicated to community service on women’s and children’s issues. She has been a member of National Association of Young Children since 1975.

Sherilynn was named a Master Leader by Child Care Information Exchange, is a recipient of The Cecil B. Moore Leadership Award, of the Leadership Institute of The Urban League of Philadelphia, Phi Beta Kappa Early Childhood Excellence Award, Career Wardrobe Leadership Award, The Education Fund Gimper Award, Kappa Alpha Psi Humanitarian Award, Pennsylvania Child Care Association 2002 Award of Excellence and the Judith Rodin Community Education Award, University of Pennsylvania. She is married to Reggie Kimble and they have one son.

Lola M. Grove-Rooney, born in Hartwell, Georgia and raised by a Mother who taught in one of the infamous ‘one room’ schoolhouses, is a dedicated and passionate woman who has spent over 50 years in the educational field. She bears the distinction of having been part of one of the last ‘A/B’ classes from the then William High School for Girls in the School District of Philadelphia in January, 1965 and a recipient of a full scholarship to ‘Cheyney State College’ under the last Dr. Ruth Hayre’s “Wings” Scholars program.

She holds a B.S. from Cheyney in Elem. Ed. with an added concentration in ECE and a M.Ed. +30 from Temple University, with an emphasis in Reading and English. Also an AA in Accounting from CCP.

Mrs. Rooney was a Master Teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for 25 yrs. and one of the three founding teachers of the Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP) under the leadership of Rita Brown. GAMP continues to flourish today, and is housed at 22nd & Ritner Streets in South Philadelphia, was recently featured in the Tribune Newspaper.

Mrs. Rooney is currently employed by the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA association, serving children and families throughout the Delaware Valley region in Berks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. In January of 2017, she was promoted to Senior Director of Child Care Compliance, ensuring the legal and ethical integrity of the Association’s programs – which include Early Childhood Education, School-age Child Care, a Family Child Care Network, Keystone STARS, PreK Counts, and most recently Philly PreK. She has been with the Association for 25 yrs., starting as the Director of the Family Child Care Network and evolving into her present position. On the Y’s behalf and through advocacy, she continues to serve on Y-USA Advisory/Think Tank Committees and number of regional and state committees and is a PQAS certified trainer.

As a volunteer, Mrs. Rooney is the current Affiliate Chapter President of NBCDI (National Black Child Development Institute) having led the chapter since its chartering in 2007. She is passionate about the work of NBCDI from its Literacy Initiatives and on to its fight against Childhood Obesity; affecting change through offering ‘Good for Me’ curriculum training to young children and ‘Grow Green, Get Fit’ to Kindergarteners and school-agers.

She is the mother of 4 children – 3 girls and 1 boy – graduates of Temple University, Columbia University, Gwynedd Mercy. They are working in the health field, social services and her son is currently a vice principal for Universal Charter schools. She has 8 grand children, 5 of whom had their start in YMCA family child care homes. She is also an Ordained Minister.

She is equally passionate about First Up – because it lines up with her guiding mantra – “Children learn what they live, and then they live as they’ve learned.”

First Up ensures that there will always be leaders and teachers who will see that they (the children) learn to live the right way – thus ensuring the Future!

Marlene Weinstein’s work in early care and education spans more than four decades including work as a child care provider, consultant, manager, and advocate. Her close connection to First Up is a happy by-product of her six years as Director of Child Care Matters, a highly successful collaboration of five Philadelphia ECE service and advocacy organizations. Among CCM’s important missions was to improve child care quality in some of the lowest income zip codes in Philadelphia and to improve access and funding for high quality child care throughout the state. This endeavor brought a number of important improvements to the field statewide. Among the most notable were piloting a quality recognition system that ultimately became Keystone Stars, significantly improved public funding for child care, T.E.A.C.H. scholarships for ECE teachers, an official valuing of quality (not just of ‘coverage’ while parents work), and a highly regarded approach to quality improvement developed and perfected by First Up (CCM’s quality improvement partner). During her tenure at Child Care Matters, Weinstein was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Early Education and chaired its Child Care committee.

Prior to Child Care Matters Weinstein was Senior Vice President of Resources for Child Care Management (now Bright Horizons Family Solutions), a company she co founded to provide management and consultation for on site corporate child care. She came to that work from directing a child care center affiliated with the Medical College of Pennsylvania, serving as chief consultant to the ISI Caring Center, and serving as Director of Training at a demonstration child care program. Weinstein is a co-author of the first trade book on child care and served as Director of Early Childhood Education at the Middle States Association Commissions on Colleges and Schools.

First Up’s tag line is something Marlene believes deeply: it IS the voice of early childhood education. It’s a place where the needs of children, parents, and professionals are served and are intensely important. It is an organization that stands up and takes action to achieve public policy gains on behalf of high quality early education. Weinstein proudly served on the board for 12 years and as president of the board for three of them. While president she managed the merger between First Up and the Delaware Valley Child Care Council. She was honored by First Up as a Child Care Champion and believes she will be championing child care and First Up for many more years to come.

Diane Gardner has been married for over 40 years to William Gardner III. She is the mother of 1 son and 3 daughters and grandmother to a grandson and a granddaughter. Diane is proud of her family’s accomplishments in the health care and social services field. They also serve alongside her in various positions at their local church, New Bethany Holiness Church where Diane serves as the Chief Financial Officer.

Diane Gardner, better known as Aunt Di is the owner and director of Aunt Di’s Child Care Services. Her family child care home is located in the Olney section of Philadelphia and she has been in operation for 14 years. She holds an AAS degree in Early Childhood Education which she earned with a T.E.A.C.H. Scholarship and a PA Director’s Credential from the Philadelphia Community College. Diane participates in the Keystone STARS quality initiative program at a Star 4 level and is accredited through the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC).

Diane has been a member of First Up for several years, however it was not until she was presented the opportunity to take part in the family child care accreditation project under the leadership of Sarah Witherspoon and Kendra Thomas that she started to become a voice in early childhood education. As Diane worked through the process of becoming accredited she began networking with other providers through the project’s Quality Improvement Project (QIP) Learning Circle. Diane is now one of the leaders of the learning circle which has since been re-named Quality Influential Professionals learning circle. Through the QIP Learning Circle Diane began to learn and understand how to apply best practices to her program. Diane’s efforts and hard work helped Aunt Di’s Child Care Service became a Star 4 Accredited Program. Once Diane because accredited she did not stop striving to go the extra mile to be a mentor, supporter and a leader to her fellow colleagues. Diane realized that with the support of the First Up quality improvement project and trainings she had become an influential leader in the early childhood education field as a family child care practitioner.

Maddy Malis, Federation Early Learning Services’ (FELS’) President and CEO, has been advocating for young children and quality child care for nearly half a century.  This organization provides child care to over 1,000 children annually, operates 10 locations and administers a $63 million state contract and provides child care subsidy and resource and referral information to nearly 14,000 children annually.

When she was 12 years old, young Maddy operated her own day camp in the backyard of her parent’s Northeast Philadelphia home.  Fifty-three years later she is a respected child care advocate, has served on innumerable local, regional, and state committees and boards (including many years on the First Up Board of Directors) and is the recipient of prestigious awards.  She has helped shape public policy decision-making in the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) in the Commonwealth. Maddy’s ability to bring people with opposing viewpoints together, foster open communication and reach consensus has promoted dialogue between providers and state officials in Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

Carol Wong is the Executive Director of the Chinatown Learning Center, a bilingual preschool and after school facility that she founded over 24 years ago. Her center has a Keystone Star 4 rating, the highest level for high quality. She received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Education from Pennsylvania State University. Carol received her Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and Director’s Credential Certificate from West Chester University. She also completed a Business Certificate from the government through the Small Business Administration.

In addition to being the owner and director of the Chinatown Learning Center, Carol is on several community boards that help to keep her abreast of best practices and advocate for her community and school. As a former board member of First Up (Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children), Carol served on the governance committee, which is at the forefront of best practices for early childhood education in the Delaware Valley region. Carol is also active on the following boards: Community College Early Childhood Advisory Board and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce Board. All these organizations provide resources, information, and support that enable CLC to maintain high-quality educational programs and engage parents.

As a Philadelphia-area resident for many years, the Philadelphia community is a crucial part of Carol’s life. As a Board Member for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), Carol addresses affordable housing and community development issues in Chinatown.  She also serves on the Board of Directors for the On Lok House senior housing and community center. She was honored to be appointed to the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Asian American Women’s Coalition (AAWC), which promotes the advancement of Asian American women through leadership and mutual support. Carol enjoys advising a new generation of youth and professionals through her work as a Board member with the Philadelphia SUNS (Lion Dance & Asian sport group) and the National Association for Asian American Professionals (NAAAP), Philadelphia Chapter.

Carol believes in helping children and all her students prepare for school and learn life skills. She mentors many kids and young adults, helping them bridge and appreciate the best of both cultures. Her school focuses on social and emotional skills, as well as academics. Family, community, and friends are very important to her. She enjoys traveling, cooking, and helping others.

Carol was recently recognized for her advocacy work with the 2017 Voice for Children Award by the PA Association for the Education of Young Children (PennAEYC). She also received the 6abc Asian-Pacific Heritage Award for making a difference & empowering the local Asian-Pacific community.

“Our role as educators is to empower children and families by providing them with the skills and confidence to raise their collective voices,” says Mary E. Graham, Executive Director, Children’s Village. Marking her 40th year in the early care and education profession, Mary is an unrelenting advocate. She leads by example. Mary aspires to the highest quality standards at Children’s Village, a nationally accredited center serving 420+ children, most from low-income and non-English speaking families. Unflinchingly direct, Mary is tapped locally, regionally, and nationally to share her expertise, experience, and perspective as a practitioner.

Mary testified at a 2015 congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., on the Child Care Development Block Grant, amplifying a message that re-authorization at a higher funding level was long overdue. With CCDBG reauthorized, the Office of Child Development and Early Learning then sought Mary’s insight to inform the state’s CCDBG policy implementation plan.  She recently served on several select OCDEL work groups including:   Keystone STARS Think Tank; Integration Steering Committee, and the Special Needs/ECE Integration Committee.  To help define a sustainable early care and education model, the Nonprofit Finance Fund sought Mary’s insight on ‘braided’ funding for its report, “Overcoming Financial Barriers to Expanding High-Quality Early Care & Education in Southeastern Pennsylvania.”

Respecting that quality is embodied in the expertise and skills of staff, Mary chairs the Pennsylvania Child Care Association (PACCA)’s Education & Policy Committee.  PACCA and First Up aggressively –and successfully– advocated for the restoration T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® Pennsylvania Scholarship Program.  Mary now serves on state and national T.E.A.C.H. Advisory Committees. Mary is unwavering in her resolve to best prepare practitioners to serve children and families, especially those at risk.  She has formalized Children’s Village’s longstanding role as a training site for educators, with Children’s Village teachers and administrators offering an array of PQAS-certified professional development workshops.  Mary shares her fiscal and business practice expertise through director-level trainings.

Mary was the 2015 PennAEYC Voice for Children Distinguished Career Award winner.  Mary continues to educate and motivate with her unifying message: ensuring that each child reaps the lifelong rewards of high-quality early learning is the responsibility of each one of us.

Dr. Pamela Blewitt recently retired from her position as Professor of Psychology at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. She holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University in special education, and taught emotionally disturbed children in a variety of settings before earning a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in developmental psychology. She investigates the cognitive and environmental processes that help young children learn words and grow their vocabulary. She is especially focused on identifying strategies for helping parents and teachers support the language development of young children. She has published basic research in professional journals, as well as serving on editorial boards. She has also co-authored a text on lifespan human development for helping professionals, which is widely used in the United States. The 5th edition of the text will soon be published.

Dr. Blewitt is a passionate advocate for young children and their parents and for the professionals who work with them. She has served as President of the Board for both the Delaware Valley Child Care Council and for First Up. One of the accomplishments she is most proud of was helping facilitate the merger of the two organizations. The new First Up has been a strong and impactful force for the good of the region’s children.

“First Up truly lights the way for young children and for the professionals who care for them in the Delaware Valley and beyond. It has been an honor for me as a board member to work with a staff of such integrity, skill, and dedication.”

Margaret (Peg) Szczurek is the Associate Director of First Up, where for the past thirteen years she has overseen all of First Up’s professional development and quality initiatives work.  She has extensive experience in delivery emerging literacy TA and PD, and serves as a consultant on young children and play, in particular, nature-based play.

Peg built the career advising initiative at First Up, designed PDs on Career Advising for the PA Key, and helped write the PA Career Resource Guide.  She has taught CDA and college classes on infant/toddler development and serves as a PQAS reviewer for Pennsylvania.

Peg’ commitment to education extends to other organizations where she serves on the national advisory board at The Franklin Institute on LEAP into Science and on the Boards at Smith Memorial Playground and Frankford Friends School.  She will be missed by many when she retires in December 2017.

Dr. Patricia Baxter began her career in public education as an elementary and middle school teacher and reading specialist.  After earning her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, she spent twenty years in K-12 curriculum leadership positions in three school districts.  Responsibilities in these positions included integrated curriculum development, instructional leadership, assessment systems development, and facilitation of intervention and outreach programs. Patti worked as a supervisor and instructor in the teacher education program at the University of Pennsylvania, and has taught graduate classes in qualitative research, literacy leadership, and early childhood issues and trends.  She designed and delivered the Literacy Teaching and Learning Module for Distributed Leadership for Penn Center for Leadership Initiative in Philadelphia Public Schools. She has provided numerous professional development workshops in public and independent schools on a variety of topics including curriculum development, teacher supervision, learning styles, and inquiry.

Currently, she is an independent consultant specializing in curriculum leadership.  Patti has conducted PreK-12 curriculum audits in both public and independent schools in the areas of mathematics, science, literacy, technical and business education.  She works with school administrations as they create infrastructures for curriculum, assessment, data-driven decision processes for continuous improvement, and teacher evaluation.  Patti is also on the Board of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, a nonprofit organization with the vision of quality early care for all children.