The inaugural cohort of Tomorrow Builders. Photo by Izaiah Johnson.
WEPOWER is thrilled to announce the inaugural cohort of the Tomorrow Builders Fellowship. Over the next two years, the 14 fellows will reimagine and redesign the region’s early childhood education (ECE) system to be more equitable and innovative.
This work is necessary—94,000 ECE-age kids in STL city and county are growing up in a fractured system. The Ferguson Commission’s signature priorities and the For the Sake of All landmark report highlight the need for investment and innovation in the early childhood education sphere. “We cannot keep leaving those closest and most impacted out of the conversation,” says Joey Saunders, director of the fellowship.
“Our region has a real opportunity to strengthen a system that will yield huge returns for us all, and it starts with a community of changemakers courageous enough to imagine a radically different future,” says CEO and founder of WEPOWER, Charli Cooksey. Research shows that high quality ECE means better professional, personal, and academic outcomes, and a stronger workforce that drives economic mobility. It means kids’ health issues are diagnosed and treated sooner. It means less spending on special ed interventions, remedial classes, and incarceration. In other words, each dollar invested in great pre-K yields around $4-$9 in societal return.
During the first of two years, fellows will engage in capacity building experiences that focus on systems thinking, design, and dynamics and leadership development. They will engage in local and national listening sessions and research and analysis of early childhood innovations.
As part of their landscape assessment, fellows are asking parents and guardians of children ages 0-5 and early childhood education providers to join a visioning campaign by sharing their dreams for an ECE system reimagined.
Later this summer, the cohort will publish a playbook that articulates a community driven vision of how the early childhood education system across the region should function to innovatively and equitably support every child. Fellows will work with partners, including Social System Design Lab, SkipNV, and Southside Early Childhood Center, to implement these recommendations.
“In order to break the grip of intergenerational poverty on children and families, real structural change is needed, particularly within the early childhood education system,” says Gary Parker, associate dean of external affairs and director of the Clark-Fox Policy Institute, another fellowship partner. “This requires the development and implementation of policies grounded in empirical facts that advance equity. The Tomorrow Builders Fellows collectively bring the vast lived and professional experience that is needed to tackle this challenge.”
The region is full of innovators motivated to create change. The response to our call for fellowship applicants is testament to this—just under 60 changemakers applied. WEPOWER and our program partners interviewed and selected a group of fellows with noteworthy achievements and inspiring commitments to equity.
The group is grounded in lived experiences dealing with the educational system at hand—including students, teachers, center directors, nonprofit leaders, parents, activists, academics, and elected officials from across the St. Louis region. 73% identify as people of color, 13% LGBTQ+, and 73% live in communities with poverty levels greater than the state average.
We hope you get to know our inaugural class of fellows, and join us in celebrating the start of their journey.
Chelsea “Sarae” Addison believes a strong financial beginning is vital in ensuring financial wellness for our youth and communities as a whole. She stands on the principles of educational equity and strives to bridge the opportunity gap through accountability, advocacy, and policy. She is the author of Savannah’s Savings Jar, and brings her background in education into her work as a director on the School District of University City’s board of education. Her charge is to use early intervention to engage students pre-K through fifth grade in an educational process to build generational wealth through financial literacy and project based learning activities.
Kate Booher is committed to creating early childhood classroom environments that uphold young children as competent and capable individuals with voices that matter. She is a multi-state certified educator with ten years of experience in the field, having studied the Reggio Emilia Approach for most of her teaching career as a pre-k and kindergarten teacher. Booher holds a Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in early childhood education with an emphasis in inclusive education, and is currently a PhD student and graduate assistant in curriculum and instruction at Saint Louis University. An advocate for helping children build language surrounding identity and differences, Booher is actively involved with the Racial Equity Curriculum Partnership and Educators for Social Justice.
Rochelle Bea built a long career as a child abuse and neglect social worker before becoming an owner and operator of Beginning Futures Learning Center in the Walnut Park East neighborhood. Rochelle has dedicated her 20 years of experience in education and social services to ensuring that all families regardless of socioeconomic status, region, or race receive quality services. Her efforts led to the Association for Enterprise Opportunity to recognize her with the Entrepreneur-Momentum Award.
Treasia Foster teaches at Harris Stowe’s William L. Clay Sr. early childhood education center, pulling from almost two decades of experience supporting children in their cognitive, socioemotional, physical and language development. Foster is a lifelong St. Louis resident with a passion for connecting families with economic and child development resources. When she’s not teaching, Foster is working towards earning her master’s in education.
Krysta Grangeno is passionate about working with parents to expand their knowledge, skill sets, and advocacy capabilities in order to positively engage in their child’s education and support their future success. Grangeno builds on her more than eight years of experience supporting diverse families in the early childhood space in her current role serving SouthSide Early Childhood Center as their family partnership director. Her community organizing background provides the foundation for her work ensuring families have a seat at the decision making table in the very programs that are designed to serve them. Grangeno holds a Bachelor of Social Work from St. Louis University and a master’s in nonprofit management from Fontbonne University.
Brittany Hogan directs the department of educational equity and diversity in the Rockwood School District. In this role, she oversees the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation Program along with district social workers and social-emotional behavior specialists. She supports district and school-based initiatives for both staff and students around diversity, inclusion, and social justice. Hogan holds a Bachelor of Art in psychology from Hampton University, is a graduate of Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, and recently won Rockwood’s Outstanding Service in Education award.
Morgan Hill builds upon her three years in early childhood education in her current position as dean of school culture for Patrick Henry Downtown Academy. She is invested in the implementation of trauma-informed and restorative justice practices in schools, particularly with students of color. Hill holds a Master of Education in early childhood education and is currently pursuing an Educational Specialist degree in school administration with the ultimate goal of founding a high-quality early childhood education center.
Jake Lyonfields, a community organizer and health care professional, co-founded the West County Community Action Network (WE CAN), a coalition working to advance racial equity by pursuing police reform, school discipline reform, and voting rights protections. Recently, the group successfully lobbied to eliminate pre-K through fifth-grade out-of-school suspensions in the Kirkwood School District. WE CAN was also part of a team responsible for defeating Missouri’s suppressionist voter photo ID rules this past year. Lyonfields is a co-founder of the California Cooperative, an intentional living community in South City that has the mission of providing affordable, just, and community-centered housing opportunities in St. Louis.
Gloria Nolan, grounded in her experience as a St. Louis Public Schools graduate and parent, advocates for education equity in the region’s public schools through her work with Equity Bridge. Nolan recently graduated from WEPOWER’s Education Power-Building Academy where she developed K12 policy solutions with the Better Budgets Better Schools campaign. She currently serves as a Senior Family Engagement Liaison in the Normandy School District. Nolan gained extensive experience in youth development through her work supporting mentoring teams, managing school partnerships, developing volunteers and caregivers at local non-profits and Langston Middle School. Nolan holds a Master of Science from University of Central Missouri in college student personnel administration and a Bachelor of Science in therapeutic recreation. She is a wife and a mother of Dylan and Evan.
Adrienne Pennington, owner and Director of Alexus Palace Child Development Center, has been nurturing children and supporting families for over 20 years. Outside of the center’s daily operations, Pennington serves as a professional development specialist through The Council for Professional Recognition. She is a certified trainer through the Department of Health and Senior Services and is on the path of pursuing her Bachelors of Science in child development. In 2016 Pennington started hosting Meeting of the Minds (The Early Childhood Director’s Connection), a group of early childhood professionals, who connect and share resources that support raising the quality of early care and education.
Vanessa Pimblott brings her experience in a variety of industries, from beauty to education and most recently fintech as a human resource specialist to the table. Her passion and commitment to building stronger, healthier communities led her cross country from her hometown of Los Angeles to St. Louis. Pimblott supports the development of St. Louis’s Latinx community, in part by coaching for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She is parent to two children—Judah and Jesse.
Kate Polokonis is a former teacher with experience in both St. Louis public and charter schools. Her experience in the classroom led her to return to graduate school to study social and economic development and social policy in order to foster change in the systems surrounding education and child wellbeing. Polokonis is a Master in Social Work candidate at the Brown School of Social Work and a Clark-Fox policy scholar. She is mom to Madeleine and Oliver.
Albert Sanders Jr has taught for 19 years for St. Louis Public Schools, 15 in Pre-Kindergarten. Sanders is grounded in the belief that all students are able to meet high expectations with support from caring and quality educators. Last year, Sanders earned the Adelaide M. Schlafly Early Childhood Educator of the Year award and the Missouri Regional Teacher of the Year award.
Asia Wallace is committed to providing students with a loving and developmentally sound foundation. Wallace obtained her Bachelor of Arts in elementary education from Fontbonne University. She now teaches first grade at Washington Elementary School. Wallace, the mother of DeMarco and Jayson, is one of the first Parent Ambassadors for the Nurse-Family Partnership, which supports low-income, first-time mothers.