July 13, 2021
By Camila Beiner
A blog series profiling the work of community leaders across the country working to address the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice in their local communities. The series amplifies diverse leadership and the impact on communities, partnerships and members.
When Joelle Auguste started working as a family engagement and comprehensive service manager at Boston Public Schools’ Universal Pre-K program (Boston UPK), she made it her mission to be the voice for children and families from underrepresented populations. For several years, Vital Village Networks (VVN) has worked collaboratively with Boston UPK. When describing her reason for joining Boston UPK, Auguste stated “family engagement is my passion… I want to be able to support families and strengthen families so they can support their children.” Boston UPK is a program within the Boston Public School system, funded by the City of Boston, that aims to provide every 4-year-old with high-quality preschool at no cost. Auguste explained that the UPK model creates a foundation for children at an early age that will set them up for success later in life. Many emerging programs across the country are making an effort to launch similar universal pre-k programs. Boston’s program stresses the importance of teaching children in small classroom settings where they can learn to share their feelings, build positive relationships, and focus on critical life skills.
Auguste has been involved in early childhood work for over twenty years, and her motivation to create diverse and inclusive environments has not faded. For example, she worked as the executive director of the Multilingual Action Council at Wheelock College, where she focused on providing professional development trainings for early childhood professionals regarding language and cultural sensitivity. Many early childhood professionals were serving immigrant populations who faced language barriers and she wanted to make sure the professionals were given proper strategies to build capacity and overcome biases. Auguste also worked as a parent educator at Families First where she led parenting workshops in English and Haitian Creole to different communities. She helped adapt the curriculum, develop training strategies, and translate important workshop material. Auguste also expressed an ongoing interest in the work of Vital Village Networks because of their dedication to support families and children from marginalized neighborhoods. However, it was not until she was invited to attend their 2019 National Community Leadership Summit, after she became part of Boston UPK, that she became involved with Vital Village: “We serve the same population, and I learned about the work that [VVN] are doing, and I said, ‘why don’t you come and partner with [Boston UPK] so we could optimize the resources for parents.’”
Connecting and Supporting Families During COVID
The importance of Auguste’s work with Boston UPK became very clear when the COVID-19 virus emerged in Spring 2020. During this time of rapid change, Boston UPK wanted to make sure children had the infrastructure necessary to support remote learning. The program provided families with resources they needed to adapt to the virtual learning environment, including providing tablets and electronics, as well as funding community programs to help make the internet accessible to all families. Auguste said the pandemic highlighted and widened racial and socioeconomic inequities. Some parents were facing challenges to find employment, access electronics, or pay for services their families needed.
As family engagement and comprehensive service manager at Boston UPK, Auguste created several initiatives to help these families during the pandemic. “We wanted to start workshops with the parents. We wanted to make sure that the learning services were also consistent at home so the kids have a better chance of being supported.” Auguste said she previously worked with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families where she confronted an abundance of issues and worked with a wide range of families. She had the opportunity to offer families real solutions to the issues in their homes. These workshops organized by Boston UPK were designed to help families address the socioemotional needs that arose due to the pandemic. In addition to parenting workshops offered by Families First, some of the workshops included supporting young children impacted by domestic violence, co-regulation for children experiencing intense emotion and trauma attached in young children. She said she also invited community partners to hold mini-workshops for Boston UPK programs.
Building on a long-time partnership with Boston Public Schools, Vital Village had the opportunity to lead one such workshop. VVN staff presented self-care strategies for children impacted by trauma. Auguste explained that many of the families she works with in Boston UPK faced a number of challenges and traumatic experiences during the pandemic, including the death of loved ones and multiple losses--home, employment, community resources; she went on to say that people can forget how traumatizing it can be, especially for parents and children. This motivated her to partner again with Vital Village to develop a workshop where people could connect with others to share experiences and to exchange information and resources for navigating trauma. Auguste expressed that Vital Village has been a wonderful community partner, which has allowed for Boston UPK to continue striving to promote socioemotional well-being and family strengths even under the circumstances of the pandemic.
Centering Family Voices
Auguste’s drive to create equitable access and opportunity for every student encouraged her to start the Early Childhood Family Council. The council was designed to ensure that all families have the opportunity to have a voice and share their ideas and input around UPK programs and the Boston Public School Early Childhood Department. “Diversity gives you a greater range of talent and of perspective…when decisions are being made it is important to bring in different perspectives in order to develop effective policies.” Auguste’s primary goal was to have a council that reflected the racial and ethnic makeup of the Boston Public School student population. She also emphasized the importance of having council members who can speak multiple languages, who have experience with special education, and who come from diverse backgrounds. Auguste expressed Boston UPK was able to successfully accomplish all those goals, and in June 2021 launched the Early Childhood Family Council with over 20 representatives.
Regardless of where she works, Joelle makes it her priority to be a champion to all families and children. Another way she has advocated for families is through designing the Boston Public School Racial Equity Fund to help mitigate the socio-economic factors that can prevent children and families from accessing and enrolling into the UPK program. These funds supplement the funds UPK sites already receive from the city of Boston and are meant to cover expenses for families to support their participation —such as translation of curriculum materials and transportation. Auguste along with her colleagues at Boston UPK are actively working to expand the program. In the following year, Boston UPK will launch a pilot program to include 3-year-old’s in the classroom, especially those who were highly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They also hope to reach out to home-based childcare centers to learn from their programs and deliver similar offerings. Auguste said even families who are not part of Boston UPK can benefit from the program through workshops and services. “We don’t leave anyone behind, you don’t go alone…you go together, you do it for your community.”