Molly, Executive Director @ Tandem, Partners in Early Learning
"The compromises young people from distressed communities have to make in order to make a class leap are too much. Too few people make that leap, because the compromises to do so destroy their families. I don't understand how we can let that be the case... You shouldn't have to leave your community behind to get educated, or have to abandon your opportunity for education to maintain your community and support your family."
Molly Wertz has dedicated her career to impacting education so that all children have the opportunity to succeed. Her work at Tandem, Partners in Early Learning in the San Francisco Bay Area, inspires both families and communities to engage in children's learning from birth - sparking joy to close the opportunity gap! Molly was interviewed as part of our #edleader series by RE-ENVISIONED Co-Founder & Executive Director, Erin Raab.
Could you tell me about you and your journey in the world of education?
Well, I currently run an early-learning nonprofit, Tandem, Partners in Early Learning, that brings information about kindergarten readiness and early literacy development to families, and tries to provide them with the knowledge, skills, resources, and confidence they need to do everything they can to support their children's kindergarten readiness.
We do that work through both educational institutions and noneducational institutions: in communities we work through education organizations, community-based organizations, health-care institutions, and workforce development organizations. Basically we want to help anybody who is working with families to support those families and to support children's school readiness.
I come to that with a history in education. I was an alternative high school educator and founder of an alternative public high school, a first and second-grade teacher, a middle-school teacher, and I started out as an enrichment teacher. I went into teaching because I had three young children who I thought had a very rich learning experience at home with me in our community when they were young:
It felt really weird when my first child went to public school and was all of a sudden only going to be surrounded by other five-year-olds rather than a rich multi-generational universe of people with whom we interacted every day.
So I became very involved in the school system because I just didn't trust it to be the right place for my child to learn and, as a result of being there, saw lots of room for improvement and places I could contribute.
Consequently I was a volunteer, then became an aid, then became a teacher, and then became an administrator. At each level I felt like the folks at the level beyond were creating barriers to my being able to be successful, so that challenged me to keep moving. Ultimately I became a funder, because I felt like the funders working with policymakers could have an impact on what was possible to happen in education.
I was involved in school reform efforts at the middle and high school level, mostly connected with the school-to-career movement - both trying to make academic education more relevant, and vocational education more rigorous, but also infusing youth development into that world, that school-to-career world. We were working to actually making that a three-pronged stool with youth development rather than a two-pronged stool. We tried to bring together the different institutions and communities who had a stake in young people being successful. I asked them to pony up the resources they had, whether that was time, opportunities, money, or re-looking at their philosophy about how they engage with young humans to create better outcomes for young people.
From there I became a funder of work at a United Way, which focused mainly on youth development and youth workforce development, but also included some other programs. I ended up managing many programs at United Way, including some early childhood programs. That became something I was very interested in, particularly since my experience in early childhood with my own children had moved me into this world to begin with. And so I embraced those programs, and ultimately when a small early literacy program became strong enough that it became its own 501(c)(3), I became the Executive Director and left my role in executive management at United Way to grow this organization, which I have spent now the last 13 years, including its time inside United Way, growing.
The next couple of questions are all related to a kid that you personally care about.
Take a moment and think a child you care about. When you've identified one and you're ready, just describe that child to me, and who they are, their relationship to you, their personality.
I have a granddaughter who is nine years old. Her name is Darian. She is at that beautiful stage of life that is the nine-year-old girl when they feel their power and believe they can do anything in the world, and are incredibly resilient.
She has been very well loved and very well supported in her life. She goes to public school. She takes enrichment classes in various performance arts outside of school. Darian is extremely outgoing and has been since she was a small child.
Her first career aspiration was to be a celebrity. We're working on providing her some skills so that her celebrity can be based on something, like dance or singing or whatever.
She's fiercely kind, and giving, and loving of her brother. They have a remarkable bond. They are a duo of siblings, and so that may have something to do with it. I grew up in a much bigger group of siblings, and my kids had more siblings, so it's really fun to see that bond between two people in a family.
She is bright, very bright, and she doesn't read for enjoyment. It's not the thing that turns her on, which is really interesting to me, because reading is a thing that always turned me on. It is my access to the world. She does read: she doesn't hate it, but it's not the thing she picks to do when it's time to pick something to do. Sometimes she takes up too much space in the room, because she is very enthusiastic about who she is and what she thinks, and she's been very well supported. So I imagine with a great teacher, she has a great experience, and is a great contributor in a classroom. And if she had a weak teacher and a classroom of 30 kids, she might find herself getting in trouble. That has not been the case so far, but that's one of the things about her that, as a person with a history — as a teacher, and history as a kid — I see in the wrong environment she might get in trouble. So that's my kid.
That was a beautiful description.
Imagine Darian grown up. Say she's in her 30s, out of whatever path she takes through education, and living her life as an adult. What do you hope for her for her life? What would make it a good life or a successful life?
I would like for her to have enough. And, I would like for her to have meaningful work where she feels like she brings her special talents and makes a difference for people.
I would like her to have enough leisure time to be able to pursue her personal passions. Hopefully passions that involve making society a better place, if she happens to have a job in the private sector and it’s not the goal of her job. So, if she has to work in the private sector in order to make a living I want the world of the private sector to be such that she has enough time and energy outside of her day job to pursue making the world a better place, or pursue her art, or whatever that ends up being for her, and to have the time to maintain her relationships with her family and her community.
Is there anything you worry about getting in the way of her achieving this kind of life?
Absolutely. The increasing economic divide. Neither of Darian's parents has a college degree. Her mother, having a personality much like Darian's, is doing okay and will probably not need to get one to be able to take care of herself and her family, certainly through her children growing up. I think that becoming less and less possible, so I worry that Darian will not get a college degree if her parents don't have one. I can be an important factor in that but I would hope that Darian has stability in her family so that she can pursue academics. Given the fact that her parents don't have college degrees, a major deconstruction of the economy in this country would probably render her father less employed than he needs to be, which then could lead to depression, which then could lead to problems in the family, which then could lead to her also being derailed at that period, like when her mother got derailed.
So I think that the economy — it's weird that you're even hearing this come out of my mouth — the economy and stability is really important if she's going to make it through adolescence whole. And, frankly the cost of post-secondary education is of concern. I want her to be able to have access to the greatest teachers to help her grow her mind so that in whatever way she decides to contribute, she has this broad base from which to contribute. If the economy is such that she can't afford to go to college, even if she's brilliant and wants to, but she just can't do it because she has to work so hard, I worry about that. I worry about that a lot.
In your ideal world what is the role schooling should play in helping her achieve that ideal good life you described?
School should help her know herself. It should help her know her power. It should help her find her sense of responsibility and community. It should offer her access to inspirational guides.
And, school should offer her skills to be able to fully embrace and utilize the information that exists in the world, and it should offer her access to great thinkers and great teachers, and the intersection of ideas.
I just read about what Finland is going to do: basically integrated project-based student-directed learning for the last two years in high school nationwide, and that makes me so happy.
What is it about that that you think is so fundamentally aligned with what you would hope for?
My kids were in this public school that in second, third, and fourth grade, they did these projects called a Bloom's Taxonomy Report. They could pick any subject they were interested in in the world — these were little kids — anything they liked. Then over the course of the year they worked on this report on that subject, to which they applied all of the modes of thinking and learning that they had, and they used Bloom's Taxonomy as the framework for that— and they did this every year to a deeper degree every year at this particular school. In every case my three children came absolutely alive, and dove deeply into a subject, and explored philosophy, and biology, and technology, and all kinds of aspects that pertained to the subject that they chose to study.
When I worked to infuse project-based learning in senior projects in the high school system in the district where I worked — and you would see these kids who had been disengaged from school for years — maybe getting by, maybe not getting by. But when a senior project was a requirement for graduation, again, it was a subject that they cared about that they needed to look at through many different lenses. They had to actually do something with the subject and then present it in front of community leaders.
You saw kids who never got any acknowledgement in the school system get incredible acknowledgement and develop that pride, that power, and that sense of connection to their community. It was phenomenal.
I've seen it. I've seen it happen with little kids. I've seen it happen with 18-year-olds, and it's meaningful, and it's what is meaningful to me about my job. I learn about so many things in the course of doing this job. This job's really hard, but it keeps me alive, and it keeps me growing, and it keeps me moving. Shouldn't all of life be like that? Why does that have to start only for those us privileged enough to be able to start an organization?
Why can't that be the model? The way humans grow one another, the way we nurture and grow our community of fellow humans, should keep us alive and growing.
I think about when I was little. I was one of 11 kids, and I lived on a block with a lot of kids, and we basically got kicked out of the house in the morning to go play. It didn't matter. You were three years old you got kicked out of the house, too, with your five-year-old, and your eight-year-old, and your ten-year-old brother and sister. You were told to play until the next meal was and you were told the next meal was ready when someone hollered out the front door. So we would go out to play, and we would create together and every day we developed a project. We did a play. We did a roller-skating pageant. We did whatever, and it didn't matter how old you were. An appropriate role was found for you to be able to contribute. And it was self-directed by a big pack of kids of different socioeconomic levels, in fact, on the block that I lived on in an urban city. But everybody had a role, and everybody's role evolved as they got older, and everybody brought what they had to the table, and the rest of the group figured out what they could give. That's why I am who I am. I do not believe who I am is who I am because of the school I went to: I went to very traditional Catholic schools. I happen to have the skills to thrive in that environment, or to succeed and get a good pat on the back and learn a bunch of stuff. But my soul was fed was in creating projects in the world.
I think people whose souls are fed ultimately have more to offer.
Furthermore, if we're going to prepare for a future that requires that we be creative, we'd better give people an opportunity to be creative in their learning.
In what ways do you think school will play this ideal role for Darian, and in what ways do you think it won't?
She goes to that school that my kids went to. She lives in that community. Her mother is an active PTA member, trying to make that school be what she felt it was for her. At that school she's getting some support but they're having to supplement outside that school, because the system does not provide the kind of arts that she needs. It does provide a little bit - I mean, there is a class play. The kids all have an opportunity to be in a play at school, and those are structured really beautifully, but they are adult-directed. They're not plays the kids have written. They're plays that somebody has organized so you can do a play if you have 30 kids in your class, and every kid has a part.
So the school is trying, but it's constrained by the fact that the school is part of this immense immovable system based on financing, as I understand it. So I don't think the kids that are solely depending on their school — you know, Darian's classmates, Darian's immigrant classmates whose parents don't have the resources to pay for dancing and music lessons outside of school, and whose parents don’t have the time because they're working so many jobs to provide for their kids what Darian gets – are getting the same opportunities to develop. Darian does get to do a little bit of traveling and things. Other kids can't do that. I think school can only partially provide what she needs right now, as school is structured.
Do you mean partly provide what she needs specifically in terms of the arts?
Even interaction with multi-generational people, even an opportunity to build relationships with teenagers - that doesn't happen in the elementary school environment because teenagers are segmented out at the high school down the block. And middle-schoolers, goodness, what we do to them is torture.
Put a bunch of people that age and lock them up in a building together with hundreds of students the same age - that's just inhumane. They don't need to be around each other. They need to be around lots of different kinds of people. I think we've created this adolescent angst by virtue of how we organize people by age and by developmental level, because it's more convenient to teach people, and we can make money developing curricula for particularly aged people. Anyway.
In what ways do you think schools will play the role you think it should for all children in the U.S., and in what ways do you feel like schools are unlikely to, or not doing what you would like them to?
The various institutional systems support the best teachers working with the strongest students who have the most resources, whether that's through private schools or just the way staffing is done in public institutions.
The way schools are structured now is not helping kids whose families have multiple stressors: for example, poverty and isolation in neighborhoods that are under-resourced.
I think part of the income-inequality problem has to do with the education-inequality problem that we have. And that our solutions… well, we're jerry-rigging solutions to the problems we have, because we have to. We've layered all these solutions together — some well-meaning and some not well-meaning laws, and regulations, and financing structures - to the point that the system is so broken now. I'm not sure that nickel by nickel we can fix it.
You know, there are brilliant kids in the neighborhood that I'm sitting in right now, which is a neighborhood filled with public housing and multi-generational families who haven't worked since World War II, and African American communities that have been devastated by first the crack epidemic 20 years ago, and now the economic epidemic that has driven people out. So there's a much smaller community of people who have lots of strengths, but also lots of vulnerabilities.
Kids here don't have access to the same resources as other kids.
They don't have access to the kinds of internships and the kinds of relationships in industry that will help them develop the aspirations that they need. And even if they got the aspirations, they don't necessarily have access to the kinds of teachers in secondary school that would get them into good colleges. And if they get into colleges, they don't have access to the kinds of resources that can help keep them in college, just because the lives of their families are so difficult that people often have to just come home and help their family out, when they could stay in college, when they are promising, right?
The compromises young people from distressed communities have to make in order to make a class leap are too much. Too few people make that leap, because the compromises to do so destroy their families.
I don't understand how we can let that be the case. I don't think community and education should be mutually exclusive. That's not how I want to say that, but do you know what I'm talking about? You shouldn't have to leave your community behind to get educated, or you shouldn't have to abandon your opportunity for education to maintain your community and support your family. And I hear a lot about that. I hear a lot of people who can't handle the strain of those two things at the same time.
Generally do you feel other people agree with you on what a good life is for kids that they care about?
From the research that I have done as a part of my career, yes.
I think people want their children to be happy and connected and able to take care of their families.
Do you think that they agree with you on the ideal role of school in helping them get there?
Do I think that people agree in my — I think about the ideal role of school, is that school helps kids find themselves and gives them access to the resources they need to fully be that. I think that's what I said.
Inspirational guide, skills to fully embrace and utilize in the world, access to great thinkers and great teachers.
Yeah, I think so.
Do you think people diagnose the same problems or the same reasons why schools maybe aren't fulfilling the role they'd like it to for their kids?
No. I think sometimes — what do I hear? I hear people complain about teachers not being good. I hear people complain about school boards having the wrong priorities. No, I don't think people agree with me. You know, I've been so deep in this for 30 years.
Why do you think we have schools as a society? What's the purpose of school? Why does our government make sure everyone goes to school? Why school?
Well, I think there are several purposes. One is so that we can have an informed democratic citizenry. One is so we can have a prepared workforce, so that some people can make money. One is so that we can keep kids out of the workforce so they won't compete with adults for limited work opportunities. Those are reasons for education that have been dominant at different periods in history, and that combined, I think, are why there's a commitment to education today — such as it is.
What is an empowering learning experience you've had? This could be in or out of school.
College was really empowering for me. I studied literature and I believed that my study of literature has helped me understand humans, and history, and how we interact. The study of literature is a powerful tool for creating sensitive humanity.
Let's see, another powerful learning experience for me? I'm a pretty human-focused person. I'm a relationship-focused person. So my best learning has come from work, in jobs I've had where we were working for some social purpose. Having two negotiate two masters: the people that will provide the money for us to do this good work, versus the actual needs of the people that need us to do this good work. I think those learning experiences that I've had throughout my career in nonprofit and public education have been powerful. They’ve taught me about how humans approach those problems.
I love that.
Is there anything that you feel like I should've asked that I didn't?
A question that concerns me in terms of the big questions about education, if we're really going to re-envision education, then I believe that diversity of approach is critically important. There has to be diversity in the ways that people can engage in the educational process. I don't see that today. I see that one of the problems with the diversity approach is that it's easy for those who are not being served to be lost in all that diversity. It's hard to manage diversity, which is why we have big buildings with lots of kids in one curriculum and tests if we can see if we're actually doing right by these people that we're trying to do right by, which totally violates the how of how it actually works, right? That just seems like the big conundrum when you're talking about education on a really large scale.
Yeah. I just keep thinking that as our economic system gets more and more stratified and unequal, we use schools as a way to determine merit, as a competition field, which is automatically going to undermine the kind of growth and openness that we need to create, the kind of diverse society that we need to be able to flourish as a society. Because what you have to do to determine merit is to create these kinds of standards, which of course will never be actually objective. The competition framing distorts the ability to create environments where humans can actually flourish and learn and connect. We don’t need to level the playing field we need to change the game.
Given your understanding of both the purpose and the problem of school, how is the work you're doing now at Tandem working towards this vision you have for school?
One thing that I think is cool about what we're doing, particularly in its influence on early-childhood education, is that we are working with the systems that provide early-childhood education for families, and we are holding up the families as powerful partners in that work. We believe the realities of the families are important considerations for how those services are delivered.
One of the ways we've extended our work recently is into a parent leadership program, where we are trying to offer parents an opportunity to develop their own skills and use those to empower their passion for parent engagement in their own children's learning. So having parents really get out there and work more with parents about what is their role in their child's learning, so parents can hold that role with a little more power and feel like they can demand a little more of school. We're in the very beginning stages of that.
We're embracing and engaging parents about their own relationship to their child's learning in early childhood, and then trying to create a pipeline where those parents — usually from underserved communities — may then become those advocates and be part of the answer to changing the way school is serving their children.
What are the biggest challenges you're facing to make the kind of change you want to achieve?
That I have to raise money to do it. Well, I would say, in California anyway we have systems and resources that are identified for children birth to five. We have a system and resources that are identified K to 12th grade, we have a system and resources for community colleges, we have another system and resources for state colleges, and we have another system and resources for university in California. All of those entities are in competition for the same resources. We don't have one educational system in our state: We have multiple education systems, and they're pitted against one another, and that's an enormous problem. It's not a problem I'm solving from the chair I sit in today, but it's all connected. It's all connected.
What is a success you are particularly proud of?
I'm really proud that our work is being embraced by entities that are not traditional education entities, that there are health-service professionals that want us to train them so that they can do a better job of supporting parents to support their children. We recently were approached by the Public Health Department in Contra Costa County, and we've trained all their public-health home visitors in our content and in our approach, which is a strengths-based approach with families.
I'm proud that families really see us as their champion and partner in both their work with their children, and their work in their communities.
I love how beloved this organization is among families, and among the early-childhood educators who work with families and their kids, that people feel that our approach is really respectful. You hear a lot about how education disrespects both the teachers that work in it and the families that are utilizing it - but we are respected by the people that we're trying to be partners with. That makes me proud.
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