Christina Lopez has been advocating for child-and educator-centered, systemic reform to eliminate educational inequities in early education in Maryland for more than two decades.
In December 2021, she was invited to speak at a press conference hosted by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the ECE provisions in the Build Back Better social spending plan, sharing her difficult experience trying to secure adequate, affordable, high-quality care for her autistic four-year-old daughter during the pandemic. Through her work with the Maryland Association for the Education of Young Children (MDAEYC), for which she has been president for the past two years, Lopez has testified before the Maryland Senate for better early care and education (ECE) policy and conducted training across the state. She has also presented at conferences of its parent organization, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) on such topics as public policy, equity, social justice, and peace.
Throughout her advocacy work, Lopez has never shied away from speaking uncomfortable truths about ECE. That’s how she ended up speaking to Politico for a piece on the impact of public pre-K programs on private child care homes and centers. Lopez was candid about the unintended consequences of universal pre-K programs, such as the one recently enacted in California: they drain talent from private programs.
“I don’t think I’m a loose cannon, but I will speak the truth, even when unpopular, because I believe it’s essential to truly create change,” said Lopez. After 20 years of working in the field and witnessing limited progress on closing persistent opportunity gaps among young children, Lopez believes that radical transformation through systems change is needed, and she’s not afraid to say so.
Lopez, who graduated in the inaugural cohort of the Maryland Early Childhood Leadership Education Program (MECLP) of the Sherman Center for Early Childhood Learning in Urban Communities at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. MECLP’s curriculum is based on our Leading for Change program and taught by Anne Douglass, PhD, founder and executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation, and Amanda Lopes, PhD, Learning & Quality Improvement Manager for the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation.
After earning a B.S. in Human Development from the University of Maryland (UMD), Lopez began teaching kindergarten. But she was troubled with the emphasis placed on one-dimensional worksheets over play and the use of counterproductive disciplinary measures like taking away recess.
“They just wanted more ‘rigor.’ They kept saying ‘rigor’ for our community,” said Lopez, who taught in a majority-Black school located in a low-income neighborhood and was concerned that her children were not receiving the more developmentally appropriate education that children in more affluent areas of the state received.
“It just never sat right with me, and I got frustrated,” said Lopez, who left the position after five years for a job teaching pre-K.
Lopez excelled in her new job and was soon offered a promotion to instructional resource teacher, a district-level post in the Prince George’s County Public Schools Office of Early Childhood where she wrote curriculum, designed teacher training programs, and visited and monitored pre K classrooms for quality.
Lopez remained in the position for a decade but continued to be concerned about inequities across the system. But by then she was experienced and confident enough to speak up. Nonetheless, Lopez said she was occasionally cautioned that the workplace was not a place for advocacy. Lopez was flummoxed. “I’m like, where else would I advocate for kids other than here?’ Because we serve kids.”
Feeling she had hit a professional ceiling, Lopez applied to MECLP. “I was looking for some validation, I guess, to say that advocacy wasn’t incompatible with my work,” she said.
Shortly after the program began, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing MECLP to pivot to virtual meetings and creating unprecedented upheaval in the ECE field. Lopez said it was “a miracle” she was able to complete the program. Despite the struggle, she undertook an ambitious change project, a requirement of the program in which participants develop tools and strategies to solve problems of practice: a plan to restructure Maryland’s Department of Education to create more developmentally appropriate educational alignment and communication among educators of children aged 0-8, an idea that reflects her belief in the need for systemic change in ECE.
Knowing that such a plan “would take an act of the governor,”—i.e., authority she did not possess—Lopez started with a plan to foster community buy-in for her idea by creating a committee to oversee the alignment and a pilot program in one school district using the P-3 Framework developed by the National P-3 Center at the University of Colorado School of Education and Human Development, which works to improve the education continuum children experience from birth through third grade.
“I thought, if we could have success in one district, then we can scale up,” Lopez said.
She also designed a symposium of Maryland school superintendents to educate them on her plan and identify a pilot district.
With her colleagues at MDAEYC, Lopez crafted a state grant proposal that resulted in funding for a group of 30 ECE stakeholders to complete the P3 Leadership Program at the University of Denver last year. They then set to work securing state funding for the first year of the project, which was to include the symposium, selecting the pilot district, and contracting with the National P-3 Center to implement the alignment under the leadership of MDAEYC. Lopez wrote the grant proposal, crafted a budget, and met with the Assistant State Superintendent for the Division of Early Childhood Development at the Maryland State Department of Education.
Unfortunately, before the project was funded, the new superintendent of the Early Childhood Development division put all grantmaking on hold, pending a review of the funding process. The move put Lopez’s project in limbo. But she remains committed to the project, and she is confident that it will get launched, thanks to what she learned about leadership at the MELCP.
“I really appreciated learning about the science of change,” she said. “It made me rethink the idea that change needs to come from the top, especially at a systems level. I know that there needs to be big change in our system, but I learned that real transformative change starts small. So while I’m still focused on my goal of realignment of birth-to-third grade education, right now I just concentrate on my circle of influence and stay committed to making progress there.”
As Lopez continues to push her Change Project forward, she is now working in a new position as coordinator of the Judy Center Early Learning Hub at Hillcrest Heights, one of a network of Prince George’s County Public Schools community hubs where local agencies and organizations collaborate under one roof to provide integrated, full-day, year-round services that promote school readiness for children aged 0-5 in the Hillcrest Heights area of Prince George’s County.
In her new role, Lopez continues to advocate and lead for change, although she is uncomfortable with being called a leader. “I still struggle with the word. I feel like we’re all leaders. We all have the opportunity to lead within any given moment of our day; when we make a difficult decision or we stand up for something that we believe in,” said Lopez. “At the same time, studying leadership has helped me realize that I have more power than I thought I did. So today, I just have faith that if you create small ripples, they will turn into large waves of change.”