Nicole Andrews, the community education program supervisor at Rochester Public Schools and diversity trainer at HomeGrown, LLC, has had quite the year. As a public schools official, she has spent the pandemic ensuring that children are able to access high-quality educational resources, and as a Rochester citizen, she has grown a clientele of organizations in need of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion support -- because as she says, it's not just for well-meaning white folks.

Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

What drew you to your work at Rochester Public Schools?

As a former student of RPS, I have experienced racial and educational inequities firsthand. I chose to come work for our early childhood department because I saw an Early Childhood Leadership team (Erica Schumacher, Koni Grimsrud, Kim Welsh) devoted to equity and inclusion. I have the opportunity to work with children, families, and teachers, to support growth and development in all areas.

What does your average day look like?

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My average day is never an average day, especially during COVID-19. Usually each day I communicate with families -- this happens via email, phone call, at school pick up/drop off or during modified home visits. During those visits, we can talk about anything from attendance support, distance learning supports, child development, or resource guidance. I also work closely with our licensed Parent Educator, Amy Baker, and our community School Readiness Coordinators: Amanda Lacek and Dwana Smith from Families First, to provide Parent Education Groups. We host classes on parenting with positive discipline, math strategies, how to talk so kids listen, stress management for children and adults. ... (We also) partner with the Rochester Public Library and one of our fabulous Rochester Family Literacy teachers Beverly Sharpe and the Rochester Public library to read stories. This year, we had the opportunity through our work with BRIDGE Collaborative, to partner with a local transportation agency to provide additional rides to 3-year-old students who were in need for transportation to and from schools. Part of my day includes coordinating with the owner to make sure that children are safely and securely able to get to and from school. While in our buildings, I visit with teachers and support classrooms (COVID restrictions have limited this interaction) to help support students in assessment gathering and to talk through any student questions. I also represent Rochester Public Schools on the Board of Directors for United Way, as well as a network partner with my supervisor Erica Schumacher, at Cradle to Career, and work closely with our community to provide strategies for supporting early childhood skills development.

You were a school readiness coordinator with RPS. How has the pandemic affected readiness for kindergarten and grade school?

The pandemic has really forced us to look at other skills children can build when they are in our presence and when they are in other settings. We have truly had to take the mantra “learning across all settings” to heart and think about how we can facilitate growth, even when our students are outside of our classrooms. We know that our focus is having Kindergartens ready to receive our students, as well as giving our students the building blocks they need to feel successful entering the elementary learning space. We have taken a special interest in promoting social-emotional skills, even through virtual buddy play, to help children prepare to be in larger classrooms. We also continue to support growth by using Teaching Strategies GOLD to assess current skills and plan lessons according to children’s developmental level. I am proud of the work our teachers have done to facilitate learning for families, stay connected through ever-changing models, and build authentic relationships with children and their families during this difficult time. Our goals and expectations for learning have not wavered in the pandemic, but we have shifted our modes of delivery and methods of instruction to adjust for how children have access to learning.

How much of an effect does school readiness have long-term? Is there any indication that it is connected with success later in life?

Access and engagement in high-quality early learning experiences for children have a tremendous effect on their future. Research shows that when children have early learning opportunities, they go on to be more successful in schools, have greater career opportunities, and thrive socially. Our program specifically gives children the opportunity to learn from licensed teachers, participate in parent and family support, as well as offers flexible classes for families, The School Readiness funding directly supports 3- to 4-year-olds in our community to attend both RPS and community preschools to get the building blocks they need to have a successful start in their education journey. When we couple that with School Readiness Plus, which specifically engages 4-year-old students in opportunities for both half- and full-day programs with transportation, students from historically marginalized communities, have the access and opportunities that we know are typically not available to them.

Are there school-readiness resources you wish more people knew about?

My first wish would be that families know that they have options for high-quality preschool, including but not limited to Rochester Public Schools, with access to full and partial scholarships. I want them to know these scholarships are currently a part of state legislative session, and we need to advocate for them to pass and/or become a permanent part of our system. Transportation is a large part of the School Readiness Plus funding and without that piece, families who qualify for a scholarship may or may not have the ability to bring their child to school.

How did you begin HomeGrown, LLC? What services do you offer through it?

I began HomeGrown LLC as an idea two years ago. I had the opportunity to work with Ness Kambaki of Hope Fuse and Matthew Fehti of Rochester United and Rochester United FC. We encouraged and supported one another with business ventures that would uplift and support our communities. Each of them started and expanded their visions while I continued to develop my ideas and look for ways that I can support the community. My original focus was emergency and supportive housing. I wanted to help families who have experienced homelessness and develop a full-service system that starts with emergency placement and ends with options to purchase homes within a co-op community. Although that is still an end goal, during the pandemic I was facing a crisis of consciousness. As a Black woman in a predominately white area, raising a Black son in a predominantly white school district, during this time of civil and national unrest, I knew I needed to be proactive in engaging this community in real dialogue. I have been providing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion support for the last few years as just a concerned citizen with knowledge and lived experience. I understand that in order to show the value in that knowledge I would need to start attaching monetary values to the work I was doing. HomeGrown became a vehicle in which I could provide this service for individuals and organizations.

What do you want more people to understand about diversity and inclusion (especially as relates to training)?

That it is not just for well-meaning or liberal white people. We have all grown up with anti-Blackness, ableism, and a whole host of other biases, coupled with a lack of education in diversity, equity and inclusion -- and we all need to be more conscious and aware of how we can dismantle systems of oppression that affect us all. We need to know that this work is collective. When we invest in one another as a community and can see each other as full, complete human beings with differences that should be celebrated and expressed, our community as a whole is better for it. When everyone has access to high-quality systems and opportunities that they would have been historically disenfranchised from, we grow stronger as a community. Learning and understanding one another will help us to be more mindful and intentional with teaching, hiring, working together, and providing for one another.