Ed Talk with Liz Huntley: Return on investment of early childhood education

Ed Talks from the Education Commission of the States’ 2016 National Forum on Education Policy.

In addition to learning and learning from one another i think that these conferences also have the opportunity to find new heroes people to get that much more inspired about the work that they do in the past that they’ve chosen and i’m pleased to get to introduce a new hero of mine and just speaking to her a little bit elizabeth liz huntley she’s a committed child

Advocate but in a passionate litigation attorney i mean she came to this in a little bit different way that she’s had a significant i think 17 years corporate defense litigation practice but then she spent a lot of time not billing hours but consulting with families with governmental agencies with others to recognize the importance of early childhood education

And she’s here today to remind us how important early learning and the investment that we can make it in it is so please join me and welcome to liz up the stage i tell you feel like my iq just dropped i’m in the room at all these outstanding educators and policy people to talk about something that you all are experts about and i’m certainly not going to give you

Any data research or literature when i come today to tell you as a personal story about why i’m so passionate about early childhood education and its impact i know about it firsthand because you see both of my parents were drug dealers my mom and dad were drug dealers we lived in the housing projects in huntsville alabama butler terrace housing products one of the

Most violent places in the southeast and in that home i live with my other siblings there were five of us and we had four different fathers my mother had given birth to us from age 16 to age 21 now they decided they were going to be heroin dealers and have all of us in that home as they did so and you know what’s ironic for you early childhood people in the room you

Know dysfunction is pretty relative its from the eyes of the beholder and in that home even though i had the five different siblings from four different daddies they were just my brothers and sisters you know even though we lived in a housing project my mom and dad were in the house it didn’t matter to me that they weren’t married and we had all the toys and stuff

That we could ever want and i didn’t appreciate the fact that it was from drug-dealing money had no clue until i was five years old when i was five years old my dad as what happened when you’re dealing drugs got busted for dealing drugs and went to prison and when he went to prison my mom tried to hold down the drug business on her own and broke the car narula drug

Dealing and she became a heroin addict and one day for reasons unknown to me to this day my mother took the five of us packed up our clothes took us two different relatives homes three different sets of relatives divided us up three ways she went back to that housing project and she took out a gun and come suicide so that was a lot to deal with because my little

Reality had no idea that i was in such dysfunction until we learned that she had committed suicide and through adults talking saying things like i can’t believe she did that those children i can’t believe she started using drugs i can’t believe willie’s in jail and not taking care of those kids that’s how i pieced together what my reality was because nobody really

Sat down and explained it to me and if that wasn’t enough to go through within a month of moving into my grandmother’s home with my younger sister my paternal grandmother housing project poor my mother my grandmother was a domestic worker fixed-income just a terrible poverty situation within a month of moving in that home she had other adult children that lived

There my uncle started to sexually abuse me so at five years old there i stood mothers committed suicide dad in and out of prison not taking care of me basically an orphan of the state the relative that i am living with is extremely poor and has her own issues and there’s an uncle in the house that’s violating me literally on a regular basis so it goes without

Saying that i felt dejected i felt depressed i literally couldn’t hold my head up and look at people because i felt ashamed because even though my perpetrator i had not told anybody about the perpetrator because he threatened to kill me and to kill everybody in the home so as a young child i was intimidated by that and i didn’t say anything but i still felt like

Everybody knew this dirty secret that i had and i was so ashamed so i held my head down i didn’t really talk to people and my grandmother did believe in getting an education she believed like most americans that if i send these children to school i hope for the best i hope that they might have a chance a better life than me so just by way of background in my

Community at the time we were going through the early stages of integration and that we were a couple of years in and there were still a lot of high tensions going on in the community and some ladies in my western community decided that they were going to get a grant and start a preschool program in the fellowship hall of a local church so my grandmother found

Out about the program it was free of charge she couldn’t afford it to provided me with any type of early childhood education and she sent me down to that school and i remember going to that school the first day like it was yesterday i walked into the school and i light owed you my demeanor my head was hung i didn’t look up but i kind of looked up around the room

And i kind of smiled because the room was made just for me early childhood educators get it they get the environment that a young child will thrive ii and all these height appropriate workstations little bitty desks just my size i didn’t have any of that at home i didn’t have anything that was educational or interactive for me as a child so i kind of smiled a

Little bit but when those preschool teachers came up to me and put their arm around me and said come on in here baby i almost cried because for the first time in my little young life at that time i felt a nurturing touch from an adult i felt relevant i felt like somebody cared about me so when i hear people say well we don’t take kids to raise them well you’re

Just a lie because you do you have a more in their life than they’ll be with anybody else for the rest of their life unless they stay married for 60 years but you know how much does that happen today but anyway so these ladies took me in they never said anything about my background they never made me feel any less than any of the other kids in the room in fact you

Know what i learned i learned that if you do smart stuff these ladies a love on you and i was starving for love and affection at that time so i did smart stuff all the time in fact i did so much smart stuff that i ended up being valedictorian of my kindergarten class and i wasn’t even to be valid authority am i getting on glass i was literally just responding to

Those teachers that look in their face when you did something well the way they put their arm around you and give you that affectionate touch to show that they were proud of you because i was getting what most kids want to get at home and that is affirmation and i know that even better now because i have two teenage daughters and an 18 month old son i’m not kidding

Two teenage daughters 18 month old son so i’m learning this all over again that’s why i’m an advocate for pre-k no i’m just kidding so so i i just thrive in this environment and then let’s fast-forward it’s time to go to the first day of public school – no offense to the folks and the white people in the room but to meet white people because i really wasn’t around

White people other than when my grandmother was cleaning houses so that in and of itself was a bit of an anxiety moment for me and that happens in a lot of our communities and neighborhoods across the country that anxiety of going into a different culture or people that are now your your bigger heads so i get up that morning and i put on my little new clothes and

Eat me some breakfast and my grandmother looks at me and she says elizabeth i want you to go over to that school and i want you to tell the teacher to put x everywhere i need to sign on the paperwork send it back home and i’ll send it back tomorrow so it dawned on me my grandmother’s about to send me to this school by myself i was terrified but i was more terrified

Of my grandma and what she might do if i talked back to her so i gotten a little but on the bus to head across town and i’ll never forget that ride on that bus because you know although my neighborhood was all of maybe eight six blocks wide he was my neighborhood it was where i lived it was where i went to church it was where i played and to leave that was scary

So i get on the bus and and i remember as we were bouncing across the railroad tracks i looked out the back of the bus and i could see my little community behind me and it scared me and i remember as we drove down into the neighborhood that led to the school it was a beautiful neighbor who had manicured lawns multi-level and it scared me even more why because it

Was different it was different from what i was used to so i walk into the door and i don’t know what to do but i look on the wall and i see first grade well how did i know it said first grade because of that preschool so i thought well i’m in the right place i’m going to first grade well then parents came in with their children and they would scroll up and down

The list the homeroom lists that were on the wall and they’d say oh little suzy you’re in such-and-such room so they would take them off into the model where they were supposed to go and i thought to myself well my name’s got to be up there i’m going to the first grade so i got in my little tippy toes and i scrolled up and down that list until i found my name and

When i found my name i saw what room i was supposed to go into well how did i know how to rewrite and spell my name and how to navigate from classroom the classroom because of that preschool so i go into my room and i sit in the front desk because the lady’s at the preschool told me don’t nothing good happened in the back of the classroom when you go over to that

School you better sit your butt in the front desk so i sat in that front desk and i did not move i set up straight i was quiet i did exactly as i had been taught in preschool and i sat there what seemed like an eternity but it really wasn’t but you know the scene its first day of school for everybody we didn’t have mandatory kindergarten at the time so so every

Everybody’s first day of school red white black rich poor everybody’s nervous and lots of anxiety in the room so finally the teacher started to walk towards me now i promise you guys this lady looked just like lynda carter wonder woman i am not kidding you she had the dark hair the beautiful eyes the beautiful smile and i was really fascinated by wonder woman

Because this was the big seventies it was when the show was on syndication i watched it all the time i thought wonder woman was going to come and save me with her gold cuffs and her low rope from all the bad people so as the ladies walking towards me i’m sitting there in my little six-year-old mind thinking to myself could this be is my teacher wonder woman well it

Was a wonder woman it was miss pam jones but she was my wonder woman because let me tell you what happened so she came up me and with that beautiful smile and said well hello young lady what is your name and y’all i panicked i didn’t know what to do what did i know about register myself for school right so all i could say was my name is elizabeth humphrey and my

Grandmother told me to tell you to put a x everywhere she needs to sign on the paperwork and send it back home and i’ll bring it back tomorrow it came out i just spit it out and she stopped and she looked at me and we had an exchange about how i found my way into the classroom and everything and you all know that a lot of things could have happened in that moment

She could have called our human department of child services and hey fair love my grandmother god rest her soul but i should not have been at school by myself that day or in the busyness of what she had going on or the first day of school she could have said this isn’t my problem you need to go to the office and let them deal with that or thirdly she could have

Done the absolute worst thing that could have ever happened to me she could have decided i was one of those children and put me in a category and never even acknowledge me just stuck me somewhere in the classroom but instead now i have to say i always acknowledge my faith i believe that it was the power of god in that moment because i truly believe teaching is a

Ministry what you all do every day impacts lives and that’s what god does he impacted uhz it more than those that affect the education system and she looked at me with tears in her eyes and she said to me elizabeth humphrey you’re gonna be the brightest student i ever have you don’t think you have power you better think again you’ve got some of the most awesome

God-given power i’ve ever seen in my life because it transformed my life the ability to learn and have a refuge of a place to thrive in was life-changing for me so you want to know why i care about early childhood education because i’m a product of it because i wouldn’t be staying in here today in front of you had it not existed so it’s my life’s mission to make

Sure at least everybody in the state of alabama every four-year-old has an opportunity like i had to be in a high quality classroom so that they can be ready for school because when a kid is ready and you all know this as educators you soak it up like a sponge it is so awesome to have that kid that is sitting there ready willing and eager to learn like i was now

I’ll be honest i really didn’t understand what was going on at six years old when she got all in her feelings on me and everything and i was thinking in my mind well i guess this is just like preschool i’ll just do smart stuff and she’ll love on me and that’s exactly what i did i did smart stuff and she’s still loving on me in fact when i gave birth to my second

Child she was at my house keeping my first child and when i gave birth to that little caboose surprise last december she was the first person in the driveway i think she was there just because she’s going to see it for herself but i say to you all i have written a book in tribute to all of the teachers in my life that did agree i’m here to raise her not to take me

Into their home but to do the best that i can by her while she’s in my class to give her a chance to give her some tools that can help her for the rest of her life and a portion of those proceeds obviously are going to the expansion of high-quality pre-k in our state of alabama i just want to thank you all for choosing this profession and for choosing this course

Of road this ministry for your life and just hope today that my story will remind you that you are game changers you change the lives of children every day whether it’s the policy whether it’s through department heads or whether it’s directly at the touch of the classroom so congratulations all of you teachers of the year and the national teacher of the year i’m

Sure that you all are wonder women and super men thank you so much you you

Transcribed from video
Ed Talk with Liz Huntley: Return on investment of early childhood education By Education Commission of the States