Sarah Smith: Bringing Childhood Education to the World’s Hardest to Reach Places - Early Learning Nation

Sarah Smith: Bringing Childhood Education to the World’s Hardest to Reach Places

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the Society for Research and Development’s biennial meeting, where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

It’s an ongoing global crisis: More than half of all refugee children – some 62 million – have no access to any form of education. From establishing schools in refugee camps to bringing Sesame Street to the Middle East, Sarah Smith, Sr. Director of Education at the International Rescue Committee, explains how the IRC addresses this humanitarian emergency every day. Filmed for Early Learning Nation’s Mobile Studio at the Society for Research in Child Development’s biennial meeting in Baltimore, MD, on March 22, 2019. #SRCD19


Chris Riback:                 Sarah, thank you for coming to the ELN studio.

Sarah Smith:                 Thanks so much for having me, Chris.

Chris Riback:                 The International Rescue Committee is an iconic centerpiece of global culture. What are you doing at a conference for early childhood development?

Sarah Smith:                 Well, I’m the head of education for the International Rescue Committee and I oversee IRC’s programs in 40 countries and 20 US cities that are serving children around the world. I’m here to learn from the amazing expertise and all of the researchers and students, everyone here-

Chris Riback:                 There’s a lot.

Sarah Smith:                 … and take it in and really try to apply it then to our programs.

Chris Riback:                 So let’s talk about your programs. What is the mission and what is the vision around education for IRC?

Sarah Smith:                 We focus primarily on refugees and displaced people living in conflicting crisis settings. We were founded in 1933 by Albert Einstein. At that time, our mission was primarily to help refugees in Europe seek safety throughout Europe and in the United States. Because many of the people who founded the IRC were academics themselves, education was central to everything we did from the moment we were founded.

Sarah Smith:                 Obviously the world has changed. There are a lot of similarities to that time, but primarily our vision to provide access to learning opportunities for children of all ages, from birth through adulthood. Most of our education programs are in the primary school range but we are doing a lot more early childhood development to improve those developmental and learning outcomes that we know are so important.

Chris Riback:                 So give me some examples of what are the tactics or programs or capabilities that help bring to them. A refugee in a camp someplace, what’s a tactical, practical thing that you do?

Sarah Smith:                 One of the more common things we’ll do and easy to envision is that we set up preschools or early learning centers. They look very different depending on the country. We help establish those centers. We hire facilitators. Sometimes they’re trained teachers. Sometimes they’re just community members. We provide them with support and training and then we go out in the community, talk to parents, and bring children into those centers.

Sarah Smith:                 But one of the things that’s I think most exciting about some of our early childhood work is how we leverage the other sectors and integrate early childhood into every sector, program that exists. So there will likely be a health facility, a community health clinic or community health workers that are meeting with families in a community. Oftentimes, they don’t have the training or information about what young children need. So we’ll equip them with understanding about young children. We’ll give them resources to use in their clinic or their home visits and we’ll blanket all of the social services with early childhood content.

Chris Riback:                 Interesting. So identify an existing distribution network-

Sarah Smith:                 Exactly.

Chris Riback:                 … and help them.

Sarah Smith:                 Yes.

Chris Riback:                 Is this statistic still accurate? Over 62 million children in countries affected by war remain out of school.

Sarah Smith:                 It is, for refugee children specifically, which is a smaller number of the overall population of displaced. It’s more than half of all refugee children have no access to any form of education. In early childhood, it’s far, far higher. The kids who have any access to early learning or the kind of care that we know will promote their development is tiny. It’s a sliver of the population.

Chris Riback:                 You can only imagine as migration and environment and other changes occur and force movement among people, that’s a humanitarian crisis.

Sarah Smith:                 It is. It is. It’s in many ways the biggest opportunity as well, because I think the system itself hasn’t been set up to serve these children and to provide these kinds of programs. 5, 10 years down the road, we know what’s going to happen to these children if they don’t get the support that they need.

Chris Riback:                 Well, you can’t do what you do for a living if you don’t see something like that as an opportunity and not a challenge. You’ve got to have that view.

Chris Riback:                 To close out, the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition and the bringing of Sesame Street to Syria, tell me about that whole event.

Sarah Smith:                 It’s been really fun and remarkable working with Sesame Workshop. We’ve been testing our approaches in the Syria region, in Jordan and Lebanon, before MacArthur was launched. It’s going to be the largest scale early childhood program in a humanitarian setting. We’re hoping to reach a million and a half kids with the direct services of home visiting and center-based services.

Sarah Smith:                 There will also be a new Sesame Street for the Middle East with new Muppets who’ve just been created, and we are bringing not just the great Sesame characters and stories, but early learning and lessons about how to nurture and support the development of children into health facilities, into women’s centers, into even cash points where families go to get a stipend to help them stay afloat.

Sarah Smith:                 So if we can show that it is possible to integrate early childhood development into every service in the humanitarian sector, that will change the entire sector. It has really catalyzed others to pay attention to this population and to realize that there are solutions out there.

Sarah Smith:                 I have the good fortune of seeing people running programs in these very challenging circumstances and succeeding. And so, it’s easy for me to be an optimist.

Chris Riback:                 That’s terrific. Thank you for the work and thank you for stopping by the studio.

Sarah Smith:                 Thank you.


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