In New York City, economic divides often hinder a child’s access to quality education. These divides can lead to achievement gaps, which begin in young children’s earliest school years. But FirstStepNYC, a pioneering partnership between the Department of Education and SCO Family of Services, is taking a step toward closing these gaps with the creation of the Early Education Leadership Institute. Still a relatively new project, the Institute centers on the understanding that quality education for children begins with those who teach them—and is pushing the envelope to advance best practice across early childhood education settings in New York City.
Bank Street alumna Takiema Bunche Smith is director of the institute, which is based at FirstStepNYC, a state-of-the-art early educational program located in PS/IS 41 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The institute launched its pilot phase in 2013, and is moving into its first full year of implementation with Takiema as director. In her role, Takiema works tirelessly to develop programs and initiatives that respond to the needs of current and aspiring leaders, including opportunities to network, share best practices, and attain additional skills and certifications.
Takiema’s role is one of transformative power—her understanding of the risks posed to New York City children who lack adequate classroom instruction makes her an ideal educator for emerging leaders. Once the vice president of education and outreach at the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, and as a mother of a child enrolled in a Brooklyn school, she is uniquely equipped through firsthand experience to identify potential and address leadership development. Under her mentorship, educators learn to identify their own strengths and values and use them in rewarding ways that will make a difference.
“As the field of education tends to be moving toward a ‘one size fits all’ approach, what I am learning is that early education leaders deeply desire professional support and development opportunities that allow them to grow in ways that are specifically meaningful to them and the teachers, children, and families they engage with,” Takiema said. “Sometimes these ‘growth markers’ are not easily quantified, but they nonetheless remain central to the development of leaders who lead from their strengths.”
Perhaps most importantly, Takiema sets a great example for educators through her own multifaceted background as a student, demonstrating a commitment to reaching her fullest potential in a field that is constantly adapting.
“I have come to terms with the fact that I am truly a lifelong learner,” Takiema said. “I continue to be inspired by the information and interesting frameworks that exist in different fields that can be helpful to educators as we lead and re-envision our field.”
Takiema’s work is energized by several Bank Street values—an emphasis on positive relationships, a deep engagement with critical thinking, and a strong commitment to social justice. And she isn’t the only one at FirstStepNYC to proudly represent Bank Street—fellow alum Laura Ensler serves as its founding director, and Virginia Casper and Denise Prince, current Bank Street graduate faculty, are members of its advisory council.
“Takiema has a deep grasp of early childhood policy and practice and is able to bring those issues forward for examination in a way that facilitates community and caring about creating needed change,” Virginia said. “She also understands the challenges facing infant-toddler and pre-school leaders and the kind of support they need to thrive in their complex roles. The combination of Takiema’s steadfastness and passion have brought new life to the early childhood field in New York.”
Takiema’s role as inaugural director of a fledgling institute for city educators is no easy feat, but it is a courageous one, and one that responds to the city’s emerging needs.
“As a student, educator, and director, I find that I am living the principles of progressive education,” Takiema said. “I bring my particular perspective to my students, am challenged with new information and experiences, and in turn, bring back new and more complex ideas to the work I am doing as a director focusing on leadership.”