Early Education and Care Commissioner visits the Berkshires

Berkshire United Way and Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier recently welcomed Amy Kershaw, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), to Berkshire County to hear directly from local early learning educators about the state of this critical educational and economic sector.  The department oversees the state's early childhood system, including licensing, setting subsidy rates, and providing information and support to early educators and families with young children.

two women and three children sit on a couch
Commissioner Amy Kershaw, right, visits with a family home provider.

Commissioner Kershaw visited with a family home provider in Lanesborough and toured the early learning program at Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center in Pittsfield. She also met with 25 early learning educators from across the county who advocated for investments and policies to resolve regional inequities around professional development, behavioral health supports, and subsidy rates to support lower income families and the centers that serve them.

Early educator participants represented 18 Degrees, Berkshire Community College, Berkshire County Head Start, Berkshire United Way, Child Care of the Berkshires, Child Development and Education, Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center, and Berkshire Family YMCA.

Amy Hall, president and CEO of Child Care of the Berkshires, said early learning centers in the region especially struggle to provide infant and toddler care which due to adult/teacher ratios is the most expensive care to provide. “Without additional support and funding, care for our youngest children becomes difficult. We also struggle with finding and retaining the workforce. We had to close a facility in Pittsfield due to staffing challenges, not that there wasn’t a need for our services,” she said.

Commissioner Kershaw informed the group that a recent cost estimate study gave the department data that will help set subsidy rates more equitably. “It’s easy to talk about equity until you see the numbers,” she said. “It’s not a one-year fix, but can it close some of those disparities? We think it can.” She will present a proposed rate schedule to the Board of Early Education and Care Board at their December 13 meeting and encouraged educators and advocates to provide testimony during the board meeting, in person, over Zoom, or in writing.

Many around the table echoed the need for more behavioral health support. At Berkshire County Head Start, 28-58 percent of the children have high needs, said Donna Denning, director of program operations. “We are limited in how to address mental health needs,” she said.

“There needs to be a more public health approach, more support at the program level, not child by child” said Commissioner Kershaw. There is currently no funding for all-program support, but she said a request for information for procurement of funding will go out in the next couple of weeks.

Kelly Marion, CEO of Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center, thanked the commissioner for her leadership. “We appreciate all you’re doing to make change. It feels like it’s no longer us and them, it’s a we.” Commissioner Kershaw responded that “we’re positioning ourselves for true transformation.”

Representative Farley-Bouvier reminded the educators that their advocacy is helping to set budget priorities and drive policy changes that will help the commissioner do this important work.

"Early learning care and education is economic development,” said Berkshire United Way President and CEO Tom Bernard. “Early education programs set the foundation for lifelong learning, provide support for working families, and are an investment in the future. It was so important for the commissioner to see local programs in action, to hear from leaders and providers, and to understand how central regional context and regional equity are to an effective early learning sector in Berkshire County. I’m glad Berkshire United Way had the opportunity to be part of these critical conversations.”