By Dr. Robert Gundling, Deputy Operating Officer, Sunshine Early Learning Center Imagine a world where the voice of early care and education leaders, advocates, administrators and teachers, mainly in community-based programs is represented in articles...
“I want to be part of change, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” says Janna Rodriguez, owner of Innovative Daycare in Freeport, New York. Her keen sense of commitment led her to start a family child care home, where she provides children with the tools, resources and support they need to build a brighter future for themselves. Many of the children and families she serves come from communities of color, where access to child care is abysmally low. And Janna identifies with them as a Latina first-generation college grad and a lifelong resident of Freeport. “Running a family child care home is aligned with who I am,” she says, “because I, too, lacked some of the support I needed as a child.”
Janna grew up poor in a household with three siblings and a single mom, who held down two full-time jobs. “We couldn’t afford child care, so my grandmother babysat for us,” she recalls, “and it was great to have family around. Still, I knew I wasn’t getting enough educational support at home. I also didn’t get much emotional support because my mom was so busy working and taking care of four kids. That’s not to say she wasn’t great in lots of ways and was always intent on having me succeed in school. She encouraged me to participate in enrichment classes, cheerleading and band. So, I turned out okay. But some of the experiences I had when young left me with a wounded inner child.”
Janna turned her trials into triumph by resolving to help other folks from an early age. “I became involved in many political campaigns while attending York College in Queens,” she explains. “I majored in political science with the goal of becoming an attorney and standing up for human rights.” Sadly, the cost of law school put this dream out of reach, so Janna worked at Nassau Communities Hospital, first as a nursing assistant and then as a skilled heart monitor technician.
Still, she kept asking herself how she could give back to the community, and her chance came eight years ago when she was 25. “A family friend was opening a day care and wanted to know if I could partner with her,” Janna recalls. After thinking about it for a while, she joined her friend in opening Julia’s Little Angels. “I realized child care was a field in which I play an advocacy role and make a difference,” Janna explains. Her mission was to support Black and brown children, but after four years she saw she wasn’t reaching this goal. Her partner’s mind was more on the bottom line, so Janna decided to go it alone. “In 2018, I opened my own child care home, where I could specifically support children of color and lower-income families like my own.”
Janna left Julia’s Little Angels behind after renting a house for her business and hiring two full-time staff members to assist her. But she didn’t leave behind the lessons she’d learned from the differences she’d had with her former partner. “I’ve never wanted my staff to feel the way I did when my partner ignored my point of view. So, I tell my staff we are coworkers and I always make them feel very included in everything that we do at the day care. I also constantly urge them to learn and take classes. I tell them that the times change, and children change. So, it’s important to stay up to date on the best ways to serve young learners. Any time you educate yourself, you are providing a service to both you and to the children.”
Janna, too, is constantly learning as she works to build a curriculum that combines the best of different educational theories. And she has a better grasp on those theories since recently earning her Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. “The CDA® has really made me delve into ECE theories so I can decide how to use them in my practice. The CDA not only made me think about how I can support the children better but also about how I can do more to support my staff. Sure, the CDA is a lot of work, but I’m a much better-informed educator because of having earned it.”
Her CDA will also allow her to fulfill her goal of opening a child care center that would put a particular focus on mental health. “You don’t see a lot of curriculums that incorporate mental health and are specifically geared to enhance the abilities of special needs children,” she explains. “It’s hard to hire staff who are trained to work with special needs children, and people right now can’t even afford the staff they have, so they’re not thinking about trying anything new.” But supporting mental health is a priority for Janna because she knows the lasting impact of that wounded inner child. “So, I want to start a center,” she explains, “with components that are normally too costly to include.”
Janna’s plan is to serve 150 children, so the center she has in mind would create an enormous number of jobs. “I want to be developmentally effective in my community,” she explains. And she’s already taken concrete steps to make her dream come true. “I have secured a loan and I’m working with a real estate agent to find a building. I also have a meeting soon with New York State Senator John Brooks on how to fund the new programs that I’m planning.”
Janna has a special connection with New York lawmakers like Brooks because she’s worked on many of their campaigns. And she’s used these contacts to champion change in her field. She advocates for better child care funding by keeping in regular touch with U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice and other elected officials who represent her area in Albany, the state capital of New York. Operating her business has strengthened her resolve to see the passage of supportive legislation in both her state and Washington, DC. Janna’s a big fan of the Build Back Better Act, now before the U.S. Senate, because “it would expand families’ access to high-quality, affordable child care and compensate early childhood teachers for the value they provide to families and our economy,” as she explains.
And she expressed her convictions to lawmakers last fall when they toured Innovative Daycare as part of a state listening tour to learn more about the problems providers face in the wake of the pandemic. State Senators Jabari Brisport and John Brooks, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi and Assemblywoman Judy Griffin spent over two hours with Janna and her assistants touring the child care home and meeting the children it serves. “They listened to us as we talked about issues in our field, which has received insufficient funding for decades. And we told them in detail about what needs to change,” Janna recalls.
She also joined in an online listening forum that brought together lawmakers, parents, child care advocates and providers. “We were all invited to share our stories about the challenges we face, especially those related to COVID’s impact on both parents and providers as many centers close their doors. And this group experience was great,” Janna says, “because it created a collective sense of community at a very difficult time.”
We need to build this collective spirit on the national level, Janna believes. So, her dream is to see a national advocacy group for all early childhood providers. “We should have a collective grassroots movement,” she says, “that brings us all together to build an affordable, sustainable, equitable early child care sector. Everyone must have a seat at the table if we are to make transformational change when it comes to our profession.”
Janna has prepared herself to lead the charge for change by being part of the Empire State Campaign for Child Care in New York and joining in public policy forums held by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Recently she was also part of the first cohort to graduate from Leaders of Color, a nonprofit that that prepares community-based Black and brown civic leaders to hold office so they can advance equity in education and racial justice.
Leaders of Color selects candidates for its program based on their commitment to public service, sense of vision and people skills—qualities Janna displayed as a keynote speaker when the Woodward School in Freeport marked Hispanic Heritage Month last fall. The school serves high school students who’ve been through trauma, have special needs or struggle with family issues. Many of these students still carry a wounded inner child within them, as Janna does. And she connected with them while talking about the challenges she’s overcome to become a successful Latina entrepreneur.
“The students especially wanted to know what keeps me motivated,” Janna recalls, “and I said, ‘You.’ I told them that I want all children, especially those of color, to have confidence in themselves. And I explained that my commitment to give back to my community keeps me going strong. I believe in change, and I’m convinced everyone can be a part of it. Despite the roadblocks I faced, I was able to achieve enough to serve as a role model and do good, as I told the students. So can you.”
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