Early Childhood Education, Equity, and Systemic Change

Aija Simmons headshot photo
I didn't realize I was being overwhelmed by the struggle to overcome systems of injustice.
Aija Simmons

Full circle at UC Berkeley: Q&A with Universal Prekindergarten Coordinator Aija Simmons

Aijeron “Aija” Simmons is in many places at once these days, but best of all, she's back at UC Berkeley. She’s designing Oakland Unified School District’s Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) supports and launching the 21st Century California School Leadership Academy's (21CSLA's) Universal Prekindergarten (UPK) initiative. (Berkeley's Graduate School of Education hosts and coordinates the 21CSLA State Center in partnership with UCLA Center X and the California Subject Matter Projects.) By summer, Simmons will transition from her work in Oakland to focus solely on preparing leaders to roll out Transitional Kindergarten for all of California’s 4-year-olds. She brings with her a deep commitment to equity, seeded with her own experience and expertise. In addition to extra credentials in early childhood education and experience in preschool classrooms, some of her first-hand knowledge of our youngest students comes from parenting 6-year-old Me’Shelle (read on for the adorable pics). Simmons spoke with GSE News about her history at Berkeley and hopes for this new effort.

What was it like to come to UC Berkeley as a high-achieving 15-year-old, who graduated early from Oakland High School?

I had good relationships with my professors and a lot of support for transitioning into UC Berkeley, but what I didn't understand was the structural differences in the community that I was coming into at UC Berkeley and the way in which people are trained in different ways and have different high school experiences. So, of course, this is a typical story that you hear from a lot of people: I thought I was at the top of my class, but I realized 'at the top of my class' may have been the bottom of the rung in some areas. There were a lot of things, particularly in the math and the sciences, that other people knew and that I had no knowledge of. We didn't have labs. We didn't have experiments….I hadn’t been in a lab since I was a kid in a summer camp program….And so I thought maybe I don’t have what it takes for this. I didn't realize I was being overwhelmed by the struggle to overcome systems of injustice.

Who helped you make it at UC Berkeley? 

In my first and second semester, my grandmother was the voice in my head that kept encouraging me, like, ‘No, go to class. I know what your grades look like. Go back. Go talk to this person. Go talk to that person.’ And I kind of fought my way to stay.

In my junior year, when you can start exploring and taking other classes, I decided to try an education minor, which brought me into the School of Ed at UC Berkeley, where I learned about systemic injustice for the first time for real. I had been raised with positive images of African Americans and positive images of Black culture and Black history….the part that was missing for me was a real clear understanding of systems of injustice, particularly in the education system. I heard my same story. Like, wait a minute: This is what I'm living right now. Somebody actually has thought about this and written a book about this. It was too late to change what happened to me in my first two years on campus, but I was able to utilize campus resources enough to get to the point where I realized the problem wasn't a deficiency in my ability.

Why did the School of Education feel transformational?

When I think about my experience at Berkeley, those are the classes where we really talked about the education experiences of people of color. I hadn’t experienced any other classes where the center topic of dialogue was what it meant to be people of color who were trying to be educated and trying to overcome systemic injustice. I started to find for myself a feeling of belonging in the academy because up until then, I just felt like an outsider trying to fight my way through and didn't really have a sense of community.

And that sparked your interest in becoming an educator?

I was angry, but I was determined. And then I felt a desire to support students in my community who are like me. How can I go back into the community and give them a rigorous curriculum? That was my goal.

Five years after graduating from UC Berkeley, you went to Mills College for your teaching credential. Why there?

I visited programs. I listened closely. I asked around. Mills was totally opposite Berkeley. I ended up in a small environment, more family oriented, with a social justice orientation from the beginning; a place where.…I felt like they could fully see me. Mills was the place that answered the call that Berkeley ignited in me. At Mills, I was able to do two things simultaneously. I was able to explore being a woman of color in the equity classes in that program and really think about what it meant to be a Black woman who was an educator. And for me, that has always been grounded in Oakland. Oakland was part of my story.

You’re leading social-emotional learning for Oakland Unified. Why are you passionate about this work?

I think even in Oakland Unified now, we often think about the experiences that students of color are having, but we miss the experiences that educators of color are having, and then we really miss the experiences that principals of color are having. It's helped me hold [all] in the same bucket of work, which is how do we promote a sense of belonging? How do we make space for humanity? And how do we support people so that they are in the social and emotional state to do their best work, whether they're a student or teacher or a principal? And that's been an amazing privilege for me in the years that I've been able to do work in Oakland.

Why did you feel called to teach in Oakland? Your first teaching job was literally close to home. 

So I grew up on 74th. And my school, New Highland Academy, was on 86th. And my grandfather lived right there. I was teaching in my neighborhood, and I stayed there for nine years. That gave me a determination—a determination to make sure that students in my classroom had fun….You deserve to do the experiment. You deserve to do more than just read about it. You deserve to go outside. We deserve to do science outside. We deserve to be in the garden. We deserve to go on field trips. We deserve to go across the bridge. We deserve to do all of those things. If no one comes back to this neighborhood with the feeling that you deserve all of these experiences, then it's easy to just close the door and say, I'm going to give you remedial reading and I'm going to give you math practice, and we're going to do some form of that all day long.

And sometimes we had to convince parents…’You have to let us take your kid across the bridge. Like, don't be scared, Mom. We're going to bring them back.’ And you'd be surprised how many students, even in Oakland, never get to go to the Oakland Museum, never get to go to the Chabot Space and Science Center. So that was our mission. 

The social-emotional learning (SEL) aspect of education became even more critical during the pandemic. What does your work at OUSD look like?

It was a lot about thinking about some of the imaginative strategies that we can use in the restart of school. How do we keep students together? How do we create a sense of belonging in the virtual space? How do we create a sense of belonging for adults in the virtual space? Where's the flexibility? How are we increasing in flexibility? How are we being graceful? How are we holding humanity? What does care and engagement look like? And that was our constant inquiry question. What does care and engagement look like for students? What does care and engagement look like for teachers? What does care and engagement look like for principals? We really try to center this question across all of our learning spaces and all of our levels.

Has the work on social-emotional learning had an impact?

I think the impact on those educators and principals has been profound. I really do. I'm really proud of the work that we've been able to do, the strategies that we've been able to elevate, the way we've been able to shift people's thinking around SEL and academic integration and understanding that those are not two separate things; the way we've been able to support sites to think about starting the day with students in a particular way, holding intent and then really unpacking how their pedagogy and their practices actually support or undermine student social and emotional development; being able to talk to leaders about things like belonging and agency and identity and pull out lots of different examples then  a scope and sequence for a lot of these things.

Why have you decided to work with early childhood leaders at the dawn of UTK in California?

So I think going back to grounding in my personal “why," I'm always thinking about ways to disrupt inequity, ways to support educators who are doing work with students of color. I don't want to limit myself to students of color. I'm really thinking about what systems need to be in place to educate for the world we want to live in. 

In whatever system I'm working in, I really think about disrupting inequity. And so when I think about going back to early childhood with my understanding of social and emotional learning, after doing this work in Oakland for so many years, I really see how the elementary space and the other education spaces can benefit from being reimagined by looking at what's happening in early childhood and looking at the way that classrooms are constructed in the early childhood space, in order to go back to what is actually good for the human mind.

Getting this opportunity to support at a systems level, while people are rolling out their UTK and TK programs, with the lens on equity, and to really start those deep and meaningful conversations about what instructional equity looks like, I think is going to be an exciting  opportunity. And then to have that dialogue at a statewide level....will be an opportunity for me to draw on everything that I've learned about adult learning, adult professional development, and educational leadership.

Aija Simmons's daughter, Me'Shelle

Morning check-ins with her daughter, Me'Shelle, during virtual TK revealed "different moods literally every morning," Simmons said. 

What did you learn from your daughter's pandemic virtual TK experience? 

My daughter attended preschool and TK at Mills College Children’s school, and each year I was able to design a few learning experiences for the students. The ways early education experiences are deeply grounded in agency and curiosity is so essential to all learning. Then we did half a year of Kinder in distance learning. I found such inspiration in the ways young children make connections and engage in learning.

I am really excited about this opportunity to support movement toward P-3 alignment, and all the ways early education can influence K-5 and beyond, and all of the contributions this work can make toward equity.