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Center of Attention

Nikki Burnett, seen here in one of the Educare center’s outdoor play areas, says the facility is a showcase of what early education should be — and what all young children deserve.

Nikki Burnett says Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood and those surrounding it certainly need the gleaming new $14 million Educare facility constructed next door to the Elias Brookings Elementary School on Walnut Street.

More to the point, though, she told BusinessWest, they deserve this facility, which can only be described with that phrase state-of-the-art when it comes to everything from its programs to its play areas to its bathrooms.

“Mason Square, Old Hill, McKnight, Bay, all those neighborhoods … they’re so rich in history, so they’re rich in great success stories that have come out of here and are still coming out of here,” said Burnett, the recently named executive director of the 27,000-square-foot facility, who should know; she grew up there herself. “People like Ruth Carter, who just won an Oscar for the costume design in the movie Black Panther — she’s from Springfield.

“We have to celebrate those things, and we have to model those things for our children so they can see that they have greatness in them,” she went on. “One of the very important things about Educare is that it aligns potential with opportunity. I believe all children are born with immense potential, but many do not have the same opportunity to realize that, so Educare will give them that push — it will help readjust their trajectory.”

That’s why this area of the city, traditionally among the poorest neighborhoods in the state, deserves this Educare facility, just the 24th of its kind in the country and the only one in Massachusetts, she continued, adding quickly that this building, and the Educare model itself, were designed to show decision makers and society in general what all young children deserve and what has to be done so that they can all enjoy a similar experience.

Mary Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which spearheaded efforts to bring the Educare facility to fruition, agreed.

“The message being sent here is that it costs money to do this work well,” she said. “It costs money to fund quality at the level that children in this community and others deserve, and we can’t expect outcomes that we want from children if the investment is not there at the front end.”

Considering those comments, Educare is certainly much more than a building, and those who visit it — and many will in the weeks and months to come — will come to understand that.

Indeed, the facility set to open later this year, supported by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and to be operated in partnership with Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, is, for lack of a better term, a standard — or the new standard when it comes to early-childhood education.

And it is, as Burnett and Walachy noted, a model — hopefully to be emulated — that incorporates everything science says young children need to flourish. This includes data utilization, high-quality teaching practices (three teachers to a classroom instead of the traditional two), embedded professional development, and intensive family engagement.

All this and more will come together at the much-anticipated facility, which will provide 141 children up to age 5 (already enrolled at a Head Start facility in that neighborhood) and their families with a full-day, full-year program that Burnett projects will be a place to learn — and not just for the young children enrolled there.

The Educare facility in Springfield is just one of 24 in the country and the only one in Massachusetts.

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model,” she explained. “We understand that 141 children is not every child; however, what we learn here, we’re going to be able to send out — others can do what we’re doing. And on a policy level, it’s my hope that legislators can see the success of this and realize that, when they’re making out the budget, it needs to be funded so everyone can enjoy Educare quality.

“Educare is not going to be on every corner,” she went on. “But that doesn’t mean that the quality of Educare cannot be beneficial to all children.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Educare facility and talked with Burnett and others about what this unique early-education center means for Springfield and especially those young people who walk through its doors.

New School of Thought

Janis Santos, the longtime director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, recalled that, when she toured the Educare facility recently as construction was winding down, she became quite emotional.

“I have to be honest, I started crying,” said Santos, honored roughly a year ago by BusinessWest as one of its Women of Impact for 2018. “One of the construction-crew members said, ‘why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘because I’m so happy.’

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model.”

“This is a dream come true,” she went on, adding that the facility provides dramatic evidence of how far early-childhood education has come during her career — it was considered babysitting when she got her start — and how important it is to the overall development of young people.

Tears of joy have been a common emotional response among those who have toured the site, especially those involved in this initiative from the beginning, but there have been others as well. Indeed, Burnett told BusinessWest, when the staff members assigned to the Educare center visited the well-appointed teachers’ room, many of them started clapping.

These reactions provide ample evidence that the six-year journey to get the facility built and the doors open was certainly time and energy incredibly well-spent.

By now, most are familiar with the story of how an Educare facility — again, one of only 24 in the country — came to be in Springfield. It’s a story laced with serendipity and good fortune at a number of turns.

It begins back in 2014 when an early-childhood center on Katherine Street in Springfield closed down abruptly, leaving more than 100 children without classroom seats, said Walachy, adding that the Davis Foundation began looking at other options for early education in that building.

One of them was Educare, she went on, adding that officials with the Buffett Foundation and other agencies involved, as well as architects, came and looked at the property. They quickly determined that it was not up to the high standards for Educare centers.

“Their model is ‘make it a state-of-the-art, unbelievable building to send a strong message that this is what all kids deserve,’” said Walachy, adding that, after those inspections and being informed that a new facility would have to be built at a cost of more than $12 million, the Educare concept was essentially put on the shelf.

And it stayed there for the better part of two years until an anonymous donor from outside the Bay State who wanted to fund an Educare facility came into the picture.

“This individual pledged to pay for at least half the cost of building an Educare somewhere in the country, and she was willing to do it here in Springfield,” she said, adding that the donor has written checks totaling more than $9 million for both the construction and operation of the facility.

With this commitment, those involved went about raising the balance of the needed funds — the Davis Foundation and another donor committed $2 million each, and state grants as well as New Market Tax Credits were secured, bringing the total raised to more than $20 million — and then clearing what became another significant hurdle, finding a site on which to build.

Indeed, the Educare model is for these facilities to be built adjacent to elementary schools, and in Springfield, that proved a challenging mandate. But the tornado that ravaged the city, and especially the Old Hill area, in 2011, forcing the construction of a new Brookings School, actually provided an answer.

Indeed, land adjacent to the new school owned by Springfield College was heavily damaged by the tornado, making redevelopment a difficult proposition. Thus, the college became an important partner in the project by donating the needed land.

But while it’s been a long, hard fight to get this far, the journey is far from over, said both Burnett and Walachy, noting that another $500,000 must be raised to fund an endowment that will help cover operating expenses at the school.

And raising that money is just one of many responsibilities within Burnett’s lengthy job description, a list that also includes everything from becoming an expert on the Educare model to attending regular meetings of Educare facility directors — there’s one in New Orleans later this year, for example.

At the moment, one of the duties assuming much of her time is acting as a tour guide. She even joked that she hasn’t mastered the art of walking backward while talking with tour participants, but she’s working on it. To date, tours have been given to city officials, funders and potential funders, hired staff members, like those aforementioned teachers, and, yes, members of the media.

BusinessWest took its own tour, one that featured a number of stops, because items pointed out are certainly not typical of those found in traditional early-education centers.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment.”

Starting with what Burnett and others called the “outside-in” of the building’s design, which, as that phrase indicates, works to bring the outside environment into the school to provide continuity and the sense that the school is part of the larger world. Thus, green, grass-like carpeting was put down in the entranceways, and green carpet prevails pretty much throughout the facility. Meanwhile, the brick façade on the exterior is continued inside the building.

Throughout the building, there are generous amounts of light and state-of-the-art facilities throughout, from the well-equipped play areas inside and out to the two sinks in each of the classrooms — one for food preparation, the other for hand washing — to the restrooms designed especially for small people.

In addition, each classroom is equipped with small viewing areas with one-way mirrors so that so-called ‘master teachers’ and others can see and evaluate what’s happening.

In all, there are 12 classrooms, seven for infants and toddlers and five for preschool. As noted earlier, they will be places of learning, and not just for the students.

Model of Excellence

Returning to that emotional tour of the Educare facility she took a few weeks ago, Santos said that, as joyous and uplifting as it was, she’s looking forward to the next one even more.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment,” she told BusinessWest, putting almost a half-century of work in early childhood behind those words.

She can’t wait because students will be learning and playing in a facility that really was only a dream a few years ago — a dream that came true.

It’s a facility that those students truly need, but as Burnett and all the others we spoke said, it’s one they deserve — one that all students deserve.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Degrees of Improvement

By Kayla Ebner

Claudia Quintero was inspired by a lawyer who helped her — and now gets to do the same for others.

Claudia Quintero was inspired by a lawyer who helped her — and now gets to do the same for others.

In the years immediately following the Great Recession, many law-school graduates were challenged to find employment, let alone their dream job. But the picture is gradually improving, as evidenced by the experiences of recent graduates of Western New England University School of Law.

Claudia Quintero calls it her dream job.

That’s how she characterized the position she landed as a migrant/farmworkers staff attorney at the Central West Justice Center in downtown Springfield.

It’s a dream job, because she’s doing essentially what she always wanted to do and what she went to Western New England University School of Law to do — help people, but especially in the same way that an attorney helped her when she was 16 years old.

She met an attorney through a legal-services program in Los Angeles, where she grew up, who helped her apply for and obtain her permanent residence in just five short months. Quintero was always impressed and grateful for her own attorney’s diligence, and thought, “I want to be just like her.”

Like she said, hers is a dream job.

And those have been quite hard for law-school graduates to attain in recent years. In fact, for some time after the Great Recession, taking any job became the goal and, for most, a hard reality.

But the situation is improving, said Laura Fisher, director of Law Career Services at WNEU Law. She used the phrase “pretty steady” to describe the current climate, and while that’s a long way from ‘robust,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘solid,’ or other, more positive terms, it represents an improved picture and a better forecast for recent graduates.

“When the economy really took a hit in 2008 and 2009, every sector of the economy was disrupted, including law schools and law graduates,” said Fisher, adding, however, that “we’re seeing a rebound now.”

She offered some numbers to back up those words.

At WNEU Law, the class of 2017 graduated 101 students. According to data from the American Bar Assoc. (ABA), 43 of those graduates were employed at long-term, full-time, bar-passage-required jobs 10 months after graduation. Nineteen graduates were employed at what are known as ‘JD advantage jobs,’ meaning passage of the bar exam is not required, but that having a juris doctor degree provides a significant advantage.

Of the 101 graduates, eight were unemployed and seeking. Others were employed at both professional and non-professional positions or seeking a graduate degree full-time.

“The 10-month report for the class of 2017 indicates that the percentage of students with full-time, bar-passage-required, JD advantage, and other professional positions is 71.2%,” said Fisher. “This figure is approximately equivalent to, but slightly elevated, over the previous year, which was 68.9%.”

Laura Fisher

Laura Fisher

The ABA gathered that, nationally, 75.3% of the class of 2017 had long-term, full-time jobs requiring or preferring JDs. This is an increase from the previous year’s sum of 72.6%. However, the ABA credits the higher percentage of employment to “an approximately 6% decrease in the size of graduating classes at law schools nationally” (more on that later).

“When the economy really took a hit in 2008 and 2009, every sector of the economy was disrupted, including law schools and law graduates. We’re seeing a rebound now.”

Slicing through all those numbers, Fisher sees an improving job market and more opportunities for the school’s graduates — in the field of law, but also other sectors where a law degree is quite valuable, and these sentiments are reflected in the experiences of some of WNEU’s recent graduates, like Quintero.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with Fisher and several recent graduates to get some barometric readings on the job market and where a law degree can take someone these days. For many, their landing spot was, in fact, a dream job.

Cases in Point

In 2013, the graduating class at WNEU included 133 students, said Fisher, summoning more numbers to get her points across. At that time, 49 students were employed at long-term, full-time, bar-passage-required jobs.

Although the class size at WNEU has decreased since then, Fisher said this is entirely by design. She noted that WNEU, along with other schools, are keeping the class sizes at “a reasonable size that’s reflective of what the market entails.”

Daniel carey

Daniel carey

Despite smaller class sizes, Fisher believes these numbers do not reflect a lack of opportunity in the job market.

“Although the market out there still feels pretty flat and we’re being careful about the number of law students we’re producing, I still feel like there’s plenty of opportunity out there,” she said. “Our alumni go on to do wonderful things.”

“Law school to me seemed like a natural way to really combine a lot of my interests and abilities. I’ve always kind of viewed the law as a way to help people.”

And she used that phrase to describe work both inside and outside the courtroom.

Daniel Carey, assistant district attorney (ADA) at the Northwestern District Attorney’s office and WNEU Law class of 2017 graduate, fits into both categories.

“Law school to me seemed like a natural way to really combine a lot of my interests and abilities,” said Carey. “I’ve always kind of viewed the law as a way to help people.”

Beginning law school in 2013, he was looking for a way to get his foot in the door, so he applied for a job at the DA’s office. He landed one as district court administrator, working behind-the-scenes to help the ADAs. He’s been there ever since, but has continued to move his way up. Since starting his role as ADA, Carey has served as director of the Drug Diversion and Treatment program for two years, a new initiative he helped launch for people struggling with addiction. It assists with treatment, rather than putting people through traditional criminal-justice prosecution.

In addition to his role at the DA’s office, he also served on the Easthampton School Committee and was elected to the Easthampton City Council. And he’s currently running for state representative — a significant change in career-path course from his original plan of being a high-school English teacher.

He is not the only one who was initially unaware of where a law career could take them. Nicole Mule, another member of WNEU’s class of 2017, did not know she was interested in law until she took classes during her time as an undergrad.

Nicole Mule

Nicole Mule

With a major in criminal justice and a minor in communication at the University of New Haven, she was required to take several law courses that were taught by lawyers. She mentioned that the classes were taught very much like they are in law school.

“It made me realize why advocating for businesses was so important. As an attorney, I can have a significant effect on my clients’ businesses for their benefit.”

“After that, I was hooked,” she told BusinessWest.

When in law school, she noted that she did not put all her focus into one practice area, and eventually gravitated toward employment law. In 2016, she accepted a summer position with the firm Robinson+Cole, which has offices in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and several other states, and was offered a job.

She’s currently an associate in the firm’s labor and employment group, representing both public-and private-sector employers in a variety of labor and employment matters.

Both of her jobs during law school helped her realize her love for this profession.

“It made me realize why advocating for businesses was so important,” said Mule. “As an attorney, I can have a significant effect on my clients’ businesses for their benefit.”

Firm Resolve

Both Carey and Mule graduated with law degrees but have gone on to completely different professions. This wide variety of career options is another reason why the job market for law school graduates is doing better than it was 10 years ago.

For Caroline Montiel, another 2017 graduate from WNEU, combining two of her biggest passions was important, and she was able to find the perfect fit.

She completed her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering, and after receiving some inspiration from her host dad while studying abroad in Spain, she decided to get her law degree. However, Montiel had a different experience than some of her peers while applying for jobs during law school.

“I was applying every week, at least one job a day,” said Montiel, adding that she applied to five jobs a weekend. For every 50 applications she filled out, she hoped to get one interview.

After she passed the bar exam, she began her career with a judicial clerkship in Connecticut Superior Court. In mid-June of this year, she began her new job as patent examiner at the Patent Trademark Office in Washington, D.C., working in the field she fell in love with during law school.

Much like Carey, Montiel, and Mule, Quintero completed several internships during her time at law school, including one with the people who helped her obtain permanent residency. She began applying for jobs during her third year of law school, and ended up sending in applications to about 10 jobs. Quintero’s strategy was simple: apply to places where she knew she would be happy.

“I was very picky about the kinds of jobs that I applied to just because I have a very specific thing that I want,” said Quintero. “I don’t like to divert energy or waste time doing things that I know I’m not going be happy doing.”

She got about three offers and ended up at Central West Justice Center. She said she was nervous that she wouldn’t get a job she wanted or that made her happy, but having a strong network was an important factor. Though it was a fairly seamless process for her, she noted that it took some of her friends much longer to find jobs.

“I was very cognizant that I was lucky,” she said.

There are certainly benefits to knowing what you want, and Montiel noted that having an idea of the type of career one wants to go into before starting law school can be very helpful.

Overall, Fisher said she sees that JD-advantage jobs are rising in popularity, both nationally and at WNEU. She noted that a lot more people are using their degrees for JD-advantage jobs in positions like higher education, data privacy, and security.

The JD-advantage sector is a route that students are becoming more interested in, she went on, not because there are fewer jobs elsewhere, but because they are interested in trying alternative paths.

Fisher mentioned that some students choose to opt out of the traditional path at a law firm because it can be stressful, and they want a good work/life balance.

Market Forces

Fisher wouldn’t say the market is booming for law-school grads — again, ‘steady’ was the word she chose, and she chose it carefully — but she does believe there are many opportunities out there in the legal job market because of how valuable it is to have a law degree in countless professions.

“A law degree is valuable far above and beyond how it can help you practice law,” said Fisher. “There’s a lot more you can do with it. Going through the process of learning how to think about laws and regulation and risk, I think all of that just lends itself to creating an employee who’s very aware, very mindful, and very responsible.”

For the graduates, that means a better chance of landing a dream job.

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