Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
As part of what’s called “cradle to career,” Arlington (TX), like many communities, is working to ensure its approach to learning leads to a well-educated workforce. As Mayor Pro Tem Victoria Farrar-Myers explains, that discipline starts with early learning, as young as zero to three, and the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation.
Chris Riback: Hi, welcome to the studio. Thank you for coming.
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Thank you for having me.
Chris Riback: So my first question is, should I be calling you Council Member Farrar-Myers, Mayor Pro Tem Farrar-Myers, or do you prefer Doc FM?
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Well, my students would say Doc FM, right?
Chris Riback: I’ve heard that.
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Yes. You could just say Victoria is fine.
Chris Riback: Okay. We’ll go with Victoria. But I got to say I was really looking forward to Doc FM, but I’ll stick with-
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Well, if you’d like that, that’s fine.
Chris Riback: I’ll stick with Victoria.
Victoria Farrar-Myers: I’ve answered to that for 25 years. It’s good.
Chris Riback: Describe Arlington for me, if you would. What’s the community like, and what are the biggest challenges sitting between Dallas and Fort Worth?
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Well, certainly. Arlington is 99 square miles. It’s got 393,000 people, which to any other place would seem like a large city.
Chris Riback: It’s a large city.
Victoria Farrar-Myers: It’s smack dab between, we’re the 48th largest city, but smack dab between Dallas and Fort Worth, obviously get a little overlooked, but Arlington certainly has in the last six years I’ve been in council, we’ve done so much in terms of adding a lot to our entertainment center. But certainly we have a large University of Texas at Arlington is now an R1. We have a feeder school, Tarrant County College, that’s feeding a lot of our student population. We’re seeing a lot of growth.
Chris Riback: What’s the state of early childhood learning in Arlington?
Victoria Farrar-Myers: We’re trying to catch up, frankly. The fact that we’re just adding pre-K now is a little disconcerting, really what we’re working on though with the city, and some of the other initiatives is zero to three, because as you know, all the brain synapses you’ll ever develop is in that area of time. We want to really get our students a good head start by getting in there.
Chris Riback: Tell me what you’re doing zero to three. Then I want to ask you about how are you getting it done. But first, what are you doing?
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Sure. Well, one of the things we’re doing is converting some of our old childcare centers and particular school centers to be for zero to three. More infant centers, which has been innovative in the way we’re using our old resources to tackle this particular problem.
Chris Riback: Smart.
Victoria Farrar-Myers: So that’s one of the things that we’ve been doing. How we got it done, we have an Arlington Tomorrow Foundation, which years ago, some brilliant council members prior to me, decided to take all our gas well money and invest it into a Tomorrow Foundation. And through that, we’ve been able to give some strategic funding to these areas.
Chris Riback: In some ways you touched on this, but beyond your public service role, you have a PhD in political science.
Victoria Farrar-Myers: I do.
Chris Riback: I believe it is. You taught at UT Arlington for a number of years. You’re now in the city council among other roles. What should the relationship be between government and local capabilities and early childhood learning? What’s the role for local government?
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Well, you think about local governments are interested in workforce development. They’re also interested in how to make sure you have a well-educated, for economic development purposes, right, a well-educated workforce. How do you do that? You’ve got to do that, and you can’t just start at the college level. You’ve got to start earlier working with your ISDs, and you have to start really, if you really want to make an impact in the earliest, so that zero to three.
It’s really, as we put, I think a lot of people call it cradle to career. I think that’s a perspective we really are trying to take in Arlington to try to figure out, how do we allow that pipeline to be so smooth so that our students don’t just attend our university and leave our city, but become part of that very healthy, vibrant workforce that will attract businesses, that will attract a vibrant community and who better to want a city to move to. All of us are trying to compete with each other, whether it’s economic development or whether it’s residency. We really want to make sure that we have that dynamic environment for our kids, for our parents of today and for our kids of tomorrow.
Chris Riback: How has the business community reacted to your efforts?
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Very well actually. Our Chamber of Commerce has been extremely innovative in terms of educational outreach. We’ve had a lot of good entrepreneurship programs. We’ve started a consortium of entrepreneurship programs. We’ve also been working in providing apprenticeships as well as providing ongoing initiatives at the lower level, so not just high school, but really reaching down in the sixth, seventh and eighth, that middle years where you tend to lose the learners. Then also most recently, T3, which the Rainwater Foundation started. It’s Tarrant County two and through. Arlington, Texas is in Tarrant County. We’re starting to see some innovative programs where parents are starting to be involved as well. We’re one of the most diverse cities in the nation. We’re really trying to get to parents as well to show parents that this is a way for you to better a lot of first generational students. This is why it’s higher ed, maybe not [inaudible], but maybe it’s career formation. We’re seeing a lot of innovations.
Chris Riback: How are you getting through to them and with them? I think that’s something that a lot of communities want to do, may have some challenges with. Particularly now coming out of COVID, all parents have so many challenges, health, environment, education. How do you get through to them to inspire them that put more energy here?
Victoria Farrar-Myers: I think you made a great point. Prior to COVID, I was working on workforce and childcare and early learning, and they seem to be, I don’t want to say pedestrian issues, but they seemed like perennial issues that everyone just said, “Oh, cities have those issues.” Now post COVID, they’ve become red hot and red centered. Full-on center. A lot of people are looking at it going, “Oh, wait a minute. We really got to go back to the basics.” One of the things I think is we’ve got to establish a trust and also a conversation at the early levels. What I mean by that is not just assume or presume that we know what parents need or what schools need, but also really open up conversations and dialogue. One of the things I will say that pandemic has done for us is open up opportunities for innovations like no other because people are looking for different ways to do things.
The old way just doesn’t work. Going back to the old way is just going to create old issues. Why not take what could be a really negative piece of our history, and you and I both know there’s going to be reverberations for education is going to be for decades to come. How do we not lose these generations?
But then how do we also make sure that we prepare for the next generation? It’s learning. It’s teacher support. It’s innovative ways the business environment can be involved with it. I think it creates more ownership though because businesses are like, well, we’re not getting workforce ready students. Well, help us figure that out with you and help us, okay, by the way, when you’re doing that, help us create an internship program or an externship program or apprenticeship. Then there’s a real buy-in. Then I think one of the things that a lot of parents say to me is, “You’ve made it real now for me. I can see the reality of the future.” It’s not just a thing that we talk about or something that’s going to be expensive, but we understand why the investment needs to be there.
Chris Riback: What a super point. I agree with you. People are more open-minded now to new ideas. We know that after what we’ve gone through, we need new ways to try just about everything. What’s next?
Victoria Farrar-Myers: A lot of work. It’s figuring out what are the most, I think, I’m a problem solver in something, looking at early wins. What kinds of things can we adjust really quickly to get people feeling like, okay, we can do this. Then looking at the longer term picture and try that cradle to grave seems a little bit, or the cradle to career. It just seems so daunting. How can we look at those pieces? Zero to three, how do we focus there? What are the main needs? K through 12 and the seamless transition to post-secondary degrees, what are the main transition periods there? How do we listen to businesses and figure out how can we work with the higher education institutions to figure out, do I need more computer scientists?
Chris Riback: Yes.
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Or to put myself here? Do we need political scientists? Maybe not so. But that’s okay. I think it’s really having some of those really frank discussions about what it is we need to move forward. Cybersecurity is a huge issue, but yet we don’t have a lot of students who are getting into data analytics. I teach statistics. Most of my students don’t want to be in my class. Yet what I talk to them about is this is one of the best skills that I can teach you.
How do we make it real? For years, I’ve always struggled to try to make it real for my students to answer the why. What’s in it for me? Why is it so important to be in front of me in my classes? We’re just doing that with parents now. We’re doing that with educators now. We’re doing that with our business community. We’re doing that to tell the story economically for our cities. So cities can convene. I’m not saying cities are going to solve the problem, but we have to be integral partners to be able to convene a lot of the dot connectors of this process. I think that’s really where I see the future going.
Chris Riback: Well. I hear that connecting from you, Victoria, Doc FM. Thank you so much for joining us.
Victoria Farrar-Myers: Thank you. It was a pleasure speaking with you today.