Elizabeth Groginsky started her career on the other end of the phone from mothers fleeing abusive homes and hearing reports of child neglect. Answering the hotline for a domestic abuse prevention project in Colorado in the 1990s, she heard firsthand how a lack of early support could lead to violent ends down the road.
“Families don’t want to abuse their children or each other. Nobody wants to do that,” Groginsky said. “Early childhood care is my calling because it’s ahead of the curve. It’s a chance to work upstream from the problems that surface later in life.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this month named Groginsky New Mexico’s first secretary of early childhood education and care, putting her in charge of an agency to which plenty of capital — both political and monetary — will be expended. From a career managing child care services on a county, state and national level, Groginsky brings a track record of using data points like social competence, emotional maturity, literacy and physical health to evaluate and improve child care services.
Across the state, providers say they hope the new department can align prekindergarten and other early childhood services that coexist across public, private, nonprofit and federal providers with different combinations of funding sources.
“A through line of my work is coming and finding things that are OK and taking them to a new level,” Groginsky said. “And that starts with collecting data — using child care centers, kindergarten teachers and pediatricians to screen children — and then asking: What is the prevalence of different developmental issues in different communities and where do we need intervention?”
Groginsky grew up in Boulder, Colo., and earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology from the University of Maryland. Her husband, Scott Groginsky, whom she met in high school and who works as a senior adviser on early childhood issues for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, attended nearby George Washington University. Groginsky also has a master’s degree in social sciences from the University of Colorado-Denver.
After starting her career with domestic violence organizations, Groginsky, 53, began working full time in child care services in 2003 when she became the Head Start administrator for Adams County, Colo., which encompasses some suburbs of Denver.
Groginsky said she inherited six federal Head Start facilities without the licenses required for state funding before creating an early childhood council that combined public school administrators, county commissioners and even the District Attorney’s Office. After the county maximized state and federal funding through that collaboration, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office hired Groginsky to publish a report on the state of Head Start programs in Colorado.
In 2012, Groginsky returned to the D.C. area to become director of early childhood education for the United Way and the first executive director of the Early Childhood Data Collaborative, a branch of the research organization Child Trends.
In 2014, Groginsky became assistant superintendent of early learning for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in Washington, taking over a division that had been through a handful of leaders since it was created in 2007.
“There were a lot of leaders that were wrong for that position, but for a lot of reasons, she was absolutely right,” said BB Otero, a former deputy mayor of health and human services in Washington. “We had a quality rating system. She revamped it. She upgraded it. It’s tied to quality beyond just accreditation with standards [that] are all proven. There is real return if you meet the standards she sets.”
New Mexico already has an early childhood integrated data system that tracks how many children are being served and where, as well as workforce needs. Groginsky said one of her first tasks will be examining that system.
“We have a huge need for a new and improved data system that helps us look at the actual outcomes,” said Katherine Freeman, president of United Way of Santa Fe County. “Right now New Mexico is really good at telling us how many, but we really need to be able to ask the question, ‘How are our kids doing?’ and use the data to see what’s working.”
According to the State of Preschool 2018 study by the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University, the District of Columbia led the nation in 2017-18 with 73 percent of its 3-year-olds and 85 percent of its 4-year-olds enrolled in state prekindergarten. With 31 percent of its 4-year-olds enrolled in state prekindergarten, New Mexico ranked 19th, but just 3 percent of its 3-year-olds were enrolled in pre-K.
That same report found the District of Columbia led the nation by spending $17,545 per prekindergarten student, over $4,500 more than second-place spender New Jersey. New Mexico ranked 17th by spending $5,845 per child enrolled in state preschool.
In New Mexico, state preschool has been licensed and funded by either the Public Education Department or the Children, Youth and Families Department for 3- and 4-year-olds. The new Early Childhood Education and Care Department will absorb prekindergarten and other child care services from birth through age 5, including the home-visiting program from the Children, Youth and Families Department and the Department of Health.
Currently, an early childhood license from the Public Education Department requires a bachelor’s degree, while prekindergarten teachers and child care workers can be licensed by the Children, Youth and Families Department as they progress toward a bachelor’s degree.
Professors, politicians and providers agree the goal of the new department is to align funding and standards. Shannon Rivera, an adjunct professor of early childhood education at Western New Mexico University who used to run a child care center licensed by the Children, Youth and Families Department out of her home, said Grant County has used a grant through its community investment fund to establish a shared services network across nonprofits, public schools, Montessori schools and Head Start programs that all provide prekindergarten around Silver City.
“In the past, people were territorial and protective, saying, ‘I’m trying to stay full and don’t want to share my info with you.’ When instead we really have to come together and work as a shared network,” said Rivera, the former executive director of early childhood programs at Western New Mexico. “In my introductory class, I can see the job is attracting nontraditional students working full time in a classroom and attending school to maintain that job. That’s not an ideal situation to have somebody still learning and with no experience in front of the classroom, but it’s out of necessity.”
Rivera and other providers said prekindergarten teachers in public schools receive larger base salaries and more benefits and pensions compared to those in nonprofit and private facilities licensed by CYFD. Leveling that field is key to solving a workforce shortage, they said.
“We are training the workforce and then they get their degrees and go into public schools. I think this needs to be addressed,” said Ray Jaramillo, who has run a child care center and preschool in Las Cruces for 30 years and is on the school board there. “Collaboration with the new department can help that. We need to grow the workforce.”
Students below the federal poverty line are eligible for Head Start programs, and providers say leaving some of those classroom seats unfilled costs New Mexico millions in federal dollars for child care services each year. State Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said New Mexico is eligible for around $121 million in Head Start funding from the federal government but accesses only about $57 million per year.
The new Early Childhood Education and Care Department will have an assistant secretary for Native American early childhood education and care. The state also misses out on additional federal funding for early childhood services on tribal lands.
“Navajo Nation has its own child care subsidy. I’m hoping with the new assistant secretary we will be able to build those strong relationships and work together to collaborate to use federal funds,” said Barbara Luna Tedrow, who owns a private child care center and after-school program licensed by CYFD to serve around 375 kids in Farmington.
“We can grow our program and take care of many more children if we can combine more funding sources. I don’t have a single child that receives assistance from Navajo nation, yet probably 60 percent of my program could be.”
In Washington, Groginsky led 100 employees with a $160 million budget. According to the Governor’s Office, 236 program staff at the Children, Youth and Families Department and the Department of Health are set to transfer to her new department. Last month, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department requested a budget of over $250 million from the Legislative Finance Committee.
While the new department begins operations on July 1, 2020, on Dec. 2 — her start date — Groginsky will start tracking the data and maximizing funding in order to solve some of the state’s problems.
The Colorado native, who said she used to visit her aunt in Jemez Springs growing up and has a brother who worked as a chef at the Coyote Cafe off the Plaza, will be back on Mountain time working to help New Mexico move ahead of the curve.
“Once I understood the true impact early childhood care has on a community,” Groginsky said, “well, I was hooked at that point.”