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Ed. Magazine

On Zaentz: A Q&A

Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones

Q: What is the initiative about?

This initiative sets into a motion a coordinated set of high-impact actions, investments, and partnerships that will significantly increase the Ed School’s capacity for research, innovation, outreach, and leadership development in early childhood education. The initiative has three, interconnected components, which, as a cohesive set, attend to the pressing needs of today’s children, particularly the growing population of those who experience adversity. The first core element is the Harvard Early Learning Study, which will begin with a representative cohort of three-year-olds from across Massachusetts, and follow them across their early childhood years examining their development and documenting their early learning experiences. The second core element is an adult-focused strategy of professional learning, represented by the Saul Zaentz Academy for Professional Learning in Early Childhood. The academy will function as a go-to place for cutting edge science about early childhood practices and strategies, and will be a vehicle for rapid cycle dissemination from an early learning study. The third and final core element is focused on cultivating the next generation of early education leaders, and includes a fellowship program for incoming students enrolling in our master’s and Doctor of Education Leadership programs who are preparing for leadership roles in early education policy and practice.

Q: How do you think this gift will impact your individual work?

As developmental psychologists who both study early childhood learning and also regularly partner with communities in the implementation of early learning policies, the opportunity that this initiative affords is inspiring and extraordinary. Over time, independently, we have each built programs of research that address pressing questions facing the early childhood and early education fields — Stephanie focuses primarily on promoting social-emotional development among children facing adversity and Nonie targets language and literacy development among linguistically diverse children. Now, in this next chapter of our work, in partnership, we plan to dig deeper into development across domains and to explore wider population patterns and trends. Because of our joint commitment to conducting empirical research that has its roots in problems of practice, this next chapter of our work will involve rapid and widespread knowledge dissemination, in useable and targeted ways to those in the field who can hit the ground running. In this way we expect to translate new science and empirical findings into improved experiences and outcomes for today’s children. 

Q: What impact do you hope this gift has on the overall early childhood field?

The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation’s extraordinary and inspiring gift will enable us to tackle, head-on, the significant opportunities and challenges facing the early childhood field today. Across the country, communities are putting together ambitious agendas for dramatic expansion of formal learning opportunities in the years before kindergarten. This momentum holds great promise for the youngest members of our communities. The challenge is that the field is expanding with limited coordination and leadership, and with many fundamental questions still unaddressed. The Saul Zaentz Early Childhood Initiative will create a hub, a new kind of resource that can bring together and leverage this array of efforts while simultaneously generating and rapidly disseminating the knowledge needed for long-lasting impact on children and society.

Q: What about the impact on future Ed School students who come here to study and who then go out into the field to do research, to lead early education policy, or to work directly with children?

The bedrock of the new Saul Zaentz Early Childhood Initiative, and in many ways an outcome of this transformative strategy, is the next generation of early education leaders — policy leaders, thought leaders, and educator leaders.  Future Ed School students, whether their programmatic experience is focused squarely or less directly on early education, will now be enrolled in a higher education institution that, in very concrete as well as symbolic ways, is organizing around the notion that the years before formal schooling are crucial. As such, all Ed School students will have access to courses led by new early childhood members of the faculty, to apprenticeships at the Saul Zaentz Academy for Professional Learning, and to research opportunities through the Harvard Early Learning Study. Equally important, as the Ed School expands and strengthens its commitment to the field of early education, the many students who come to Appian Way to participate in, and benefit from, this commitment will become part of a strong network of professionals across the early education sector who are contributing to today’s ambitious early education agenda.

Q: With this gift, you’ll be able to hire new early childhood members to the faculty. We assume this would have been harder to do without the funding?

Absolutely. Representing an exceptional and lasting legacy for Saul Zaentz, the school now has the significant and unique opportunity to add two new members to the faculty: the Saul Zaentz Professor in Early Learning and Development and the Saul Zaentz Lecturer in Early Childhood Education. As professors here, we are eager for the intellectual partnerships these new faculty will afford, and we are equally excited for how they will contribute to the learning experiences of our students and early childhood educators and leaders in the field.

Q: Would a long-term study like the Harvard Early Learning Study be possible without a generous gift like this?

A developmental epidemiological study such as this one is crucial for the science of early childhood development to keep pace with the changing demographics of today’s early childhood population — one that is increasingly diverse and growing up in an era of great economic instability. It is also the primary vehicle for developing a much-needed understanding of what early education models work for whom, and under what conditions. To be sure, today’s overall funding climate does not have the combination of will and resources to back this kind of work. What the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation has done is unique and inspirational — it is enabling the launch of a very large-scale study with the potential to generate insights akin to what the field of public health has produced, because of population-based research, around pressing issues, such as heart disease and the impact of smoking or lead exposure on health and development.

Q: When thinking about the ripple effect this gift will have in the field, what role does the Saul Zaentz Academy for Professional Learning in Early Childhood play?

The more we learn about promoting healthy development, and buffering against the effects of adversity, the clearer it becomes that one of the best investments for young children is in the adults who care for them and shape the settings where they learn and grow. Yet, this is where many current investments fall short. The Zaentz Academy marks a large and important departure from traditional strategies that under-attend to the professional-learning needs of early educators and early education leaders, and in this sense, we think that the ripple effects of the gift will be most immediately and profoundly experienced by children via the changed practices and decisions of the adults who participate in the academy’s work. At this academy, educators and education leaders will interact in intellectually stimulating learning environments — in person and online — to co-construct solutions to specific yet widespread problems of practice. The academy’s model of professional learning, which is designed to go beyond a focus on regulations and policy mandates, will include multiple, supported opportunities for participants to apply their learning to their practice in their own context — whether that’s a classroom, an early education center, or the statehouse.

Q: How do you see the Zaentz initiative relating to the Center on the Developing Child?

There are many ways in which the work of the Center on the Developing Child and the Zaentz Initiative are both complementary and connected. The center is the nation’s leader in brokering the science of early childhood development to influence and inform policies and public opinion in ways that make a critical difference for young children and their families —particularly those facing adversity. The center is also engaged in a research and development initiative called Frontiers of Innovation, which is designed to accelerate the generation and adoption of science-based innovations at scale. As we launch and engage in the Zaentz Initiative’s several components, focusing squarely on early education, the center’s expertise and ongoing work on the science of early development and adult capacity-building will be invaluable. In addition to other opportunities, we expect Zaentz Fellows to also pursue internships at the center.

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