Early Education Leaders, an Institute at UMass Boston

provides the leadership development opportunities and infrastructure that early educators need to support thriving children and families.

Adopting the Essential Leadership Model: Early Learning Center at the YWCA of Northeastern MA 

As a longtime educator and ECE leader, Mandy Chaput is confident in her skills and in her work as director of the Early Learning Center and of school-age programs at the YWCA of Northeastern MA. 

“I pride myself on having a very strong program. I’m very close to my families, my staff, my children,” Chaput said. “Even as a director, I want to be known in the program, not just run it.” 

But like any experienced leader, Chaput knows there’s always room for improvement. 

She credited UMass Boston’s Early Childhood Support Organization (ECSO) with enabling her and her staff to collect the data they needed to pinpoint exactly what changes they needed to make to improve program quality. 

“One of the best things about the ESCO was the tools it gave us, including surveys and class observations,” said Chaput, noting that information from the surveys was helpful in identifying strengths as well as areas for improvement.  

Our ESCO is a multi-year program where center-based program leaders build their capacity to cultivate high-quality teaching and learning; create new routines to support educators’ learning and practice and create a culture of continuous quality improvement; learn to use data to inform program improvement; deepen engagement with families to support cohesive home, school, and community connections; increase CLASS scores and child attendance; and focus on curriculum and practices that positively impact child outcomes. 

Chaput and her team embraced the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) method of implementing and evaluating program changes that she learned in our ESCO. The results were dramatic, she said. In one instance, surveys of staff and parents revealed that while teachers cooperated with each other, they weren’t collaborating. As a result, opportunities to provide better educational continuity for children as they moved through the program were being lost. They embarked on a 30-day PDSA cycle and found that the root cause of the staff’s weak collaboration was their inability to accept constructive criticism from each other. 

“If someone made a suggestion for doing things differently, they took it personally, as if they were being told, ‘You can’t do this. This is how you should do it,’” said Chaput. 

Chaput and her team remedied the misunderstandings by discussing and clarifying their primary goal—improving the program’s educational continuity through team collaboration—and developing solutions to help them achieve that goal. They shared reading material about communication skills and talked about better ways to handle difficult conversations. They honed their skills in a second 30-day PDSA cycle. As a result of the second cycle, Chaput said, the relationships between teaching teams improved and staff learned how to collaborate effectively. When she surveyed staff and parents again the following year, Chaput said, the scores in the area of teacher collaboration were significantly higher. 

“The overall atmosphere, tone, and environment was so positive and uplifting. There was a clear difference in our culture from before we worked on collaboration skills and after,” she said. 

Chaput’s education career began in the MA public school system, where she worked as a paraprofessional with children with special needs in inclusion classrooms, while simultaneously earning her bachelor’s degree from Lesley University. Her tenure at the YWCA of Northeastern MA began in 2009 teaching preschool. In 2014, she was promoted to director of the Early Learning Center. Five years later, she also took on the role of school-aged director. In these roles, Chaput is responsible for educational programming for 200 students ranging in age from six weeks to 13. 

Chaput acknowledged that she initially felt overwhelmed by the materials she was presented with at the start of the ESCO, but said she soon settled into the program’s structure, which helped her manage the workload. 

“When I first got the memorandum of understanding and the toolkit, I thought, ‘How am I going to have the time and the mental capacity to put this into practice in my program?,” said Chaput, who enrolled in the ECSO with her site manager at the time. “It was intimidating at first. But you have protected time and once you learn how to break it down, and trust the process and go with the flow, it’s not so intimidating anymore.” 

Beyond helping her and her team improve their program quality, Chaput credited our ESCO with helping her to become a better, more confident leader. She has since recommended the program to others. 

“I always thought I was a strong leader, but through the ESCO, I realized there was so much more that I could do differently, that I could do better,” said Chaput. “It was humbling to learn through this process that there are things that I need to do better, the same as everybody else.

“I think because of my team getting stronger, I became stronger and I became more confident,” she continued. “I love my job and what I do, but because I feel like I’ve gotten better, I love it even more. This program really helped me become a stronger leader.” 

UMass Boston’s ECSO is organized around the Essential Leadership Model, an evidence-based approach for continuous quality improvement. It is one of three ECSOs offered to early education programs in Massachusetts through a partnership between the Commonwealth’s Department of Early Education and Care and New Profit, a venture philanthropy firm that backs social entrepreneurs who are advancing equity and opportunity. The others are administered by the Children’s Literacy Initiative and the Flamingo Early Learning at the Lastinger Center.

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