An unrelenting can-do attitude and a gift for putting puzzles together—these are among the strengths that have made Mary Graham a longtime leader in Philadelphia’s early childhood education community. For three decades, she has served as executive director of the nonprofit Children’s Village, which under her stewardship has become a national model of excellence serving more than 450 children aged 13 months to 13 years. She’s a local hero, and it’s not at all puzzling why that is.
When I asked her how she got where she is today, she pointed to her heritage, explaining, “My grandfather, who came to this country from Ireland in 1920, believed in working hard and making your mark in the world.” That credo has driven her all her life. After graduating from high school, Graham decided to go to college at Temple. “I was good at math,” she says—her love of puzzles went hand in hand with that. But she happened to sit in on a class in child development with Mary Daniels, a 5-foot tall, 100-pound giant of antiwar feminism who today is approaching 90 and is still idolized. Graham was immediately hooked and switched her major from math to child care. She holds a bachelor of arts in social welfare, a master of arts in early childhood education, and a program quality assessment certification. She also received the PennAEYC 2015 VOICE Distinguished Career Award and is sought after as a speaker, panelist, board member, and coalition leader.
Children’s Village opened in July 1976 as a child care center for the children of parents working in the unionized garment industry. Mary Daniels was the child psychologist. Graham learned about it because the organizers came to Temple to do research, and she joined the staff in October 1976. Twelve years later she became the executive director.
Children’s Village is located in Chinatown, so it’s only natural that the majority of children at Children’s Village are Chinese. Other students, along with faculty and staff, represent a wide range of ethnic groups. Diversity is a point of pride. Recognizing and fulfilling the distinctive needs of children and families of all cultural backgrounds is a priority. And it’s the basis for an “it takes a village” mindset where staffers routinely model fairness and compassion. Graham makes sure that no child, staffer, or parent feels like an outsider. Each is just a different, equally important piece of the puzzle.
There is also economic diversity at Children’s Village, but low-income families are the norm for this nonprofit center, accredited by the National Association of Education for Young Children (NAEYC). “The subsidy system is a puzzle,” says Graham, and “80 to 85 percent of children here are eligible for subsidy of some kind (and it was 90 percent at one time). Many NAEYC-accredited centers are the opposite: only 15 percent might be subsidized.”
Graham has long fought for every child to have optimal opportunities. Like Sherman. Son of a single mom, he came to Children’s Village from a low-income neighborhood. Now Sherman is on his way. “He took the whole sense of responsibility and citizenship he developed here and got a full ride to college,” says Graham with pride.
“I have known Mary Graham since 1992 when we met at a hearing regarding the changes to subsidized child care in Philadelphia,” says Norma Finklestein, who provides child care information services to families in Northeast Philadelphia. “She was then, and is now, an impassioned champion of all children having access to high-quality early education.”
Graham studies other systems as well and champions other members of society. “I saw child care as a way of empowering women,” she explains. “We’re not going to change the world without economic development. We educate our children AND give opportunity to women and families.”
Children’s Village has adopted several adult programs for personal and professional development. Foremost is TEACH: Teacher Education and Compensation Helps Early Childhood®. This program allows teachers of young children to earn advanced degrees without incurring debt. More than half of the teachers at Children’s Village have gotten their degrees or are finishing their degrees. Many started out as parent volunteers, who were then hired as substitutes and enrolled in TEACH. There is a learning lab specifically for adults and language lessons for non-English-speaking parents.
Maddy Malis, who is president and CEO of a multisite child care provider and shares co-chair duties for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Early Childhood Coalition with Graham, says of her, “She has been a wonderful role model for so many and such a strong advocate for high-quality early childhood education. She loves to share her knowledge and does so freely.”
Echoing this high praise, Norma Finklestein adds, “Mary is a strong advocate for early education teachers being recognized and supported as the incredible professionals they are and an activist promoting policies that support all children and families.”
Graham recognizes that teachers need challenges, and she pushes them to strive for higher education and speak up with ideas for change. “When someone says, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a playground on the roof?’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Someone else suggested a kitchen just for kids. We made that happen.”
Recently, a big grant allowed for building renovations designed to reduce sensory overload and help kids stay calm and happy. Added walls have made for more intimate groupings with a lower teacher-child ratio. Dropped ceilings have optimized acoustics, so areas are quieter. Dark shades and lights that dim let kids wind down for naps.
Yes, Graham is an upbeat nurturer of kids and cheerleader for the adults in their lives. On the flip side of the puzzle lies a fierce and strategic warrior for the important battles that confront early childhood programs. In criticizing the shortsightedness of inadequate and piecemeal government funding, she makes the following points:
- “Early intervention funding does not support working families or providers serving working families. Services are only offered for part of the day and part of the year. A child with autism still has autism at 4:00 p.m. In fact, that is often the time of the day when a child needs more supports.”
- “Funders should recognize how hard we work to serve many children with different needs: It’s not unusual to have seven preschoolers in a class of 20 who have special needs and have an IEP (Individualized EducationProgram), a background of trauma, or are newly immigrated.”
- “Subsidized rates did not increase for 11 years. And when they were finally increased, it was a mere 2.5 percent. Centers need higher reimbursement rates so that qualified staff can be compensated adequately. The government would never think of engaging a lawyer for $7 an hour, and still expect results. Yet they pay such low rates and have high expectations of teachers who are still making less than $10 an hour. If we are to educate children, we need to be paid as professionals.”
- “The Child Care Development Block Grant requires that parents are offered their choice of provider. There are no longer contracts [stipulating terms for operation]. While this has increased the number of providers, it has done nothing to improve the quality of care for children. Having more providers funded at low rates does not help families.”
- “Early childhood education is considered welfare—it’s under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services, formerly called the Department of Health and Welfare, rather than under the Department of Education, where it belongs. Government still reimburses centers with only enough funds to provide custodial care. Yet they demand the most rigorous, evidence-based programming and assessments.”
Graham consistently speaks out to secure fair compensation for those providers who meet the challenges. She reminds anyone who will listen that this is “the most important investment we as a society can make.” As Finklestein puts it, “Mary does not back down from what she believes in. She takes on the powers that be and is a force to be reckoned with if you are sitting across the desk from her or taking one of her questions at a public event.”
Visitors to Children’s Village often see colorful wooden puzzles available for the toddlers and pre-K set and a 500- or 1000-piece puzzle for the third to seventh graders in her afterschool and summer programs. Graham will frequently stop in to work with the children on the harder sections. She is known for her fun-loving side, her relish of a challenge, her joy in making connections through play. Malis remarks on Graham’s zest for life: “I could be in a large room filled with lots of loud conversations, and I can hear Mary’s laugh above the roar—it is as distinctive as she is.” As a leader, advocate, and fighter, Mary Graham makes her mark, improving early childhood education piece by piece by piece.