By Nina Srivastava (she/her)

As millions of students navigate a return to school this fall, Dr. Aaliyah Samuel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Local, State, and National Engagement at the Department of Education, and Dr. Bernadine Futrell, Director of the Office of Head Start at the Department of Health and Human Services, spoke about their work to support students, families, and communities with Nina Srivastava, Associate Director for Domestic Personnel at the Presidential Personnel Office.

“Back to school” is my favorite season ­– every fall, I reflect on the immense opportunities that education has afforded my family. My grandparents immigrated to America from India to study and teach at public universities. Like so many other immigrants, they struggled to afford basic necessities, learn a new language, and raise children as brand-new Americans. But their stresses were alleviated because they had the great fortune of living in university towns, where they relied on the fellowship of their communities to support them. Schools and educational environments have the power to change not only the lives of their students but also those of their families.

The impact that schools can have on families has never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of students learned remotely, and parents became classroom teachers, counselors, and cafeteria workers. Since the beginning of the Biden-Harris Administration, the Department of Education has been working to ensure schools and communities are receiving the necessary relief and resources to safely welcome students back to in-person learning. The Office of Communications and Outreach at the Department of Education – where Dr. Aaliyah Samuel serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Local, State, and National Engagement – leads efforts to engage the public in the Department’s mission to foster equal access to high-quality education. The Office of Head Start at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is directed by Dr. Bernadine Futrell, also seeks to engage with communities: the office supports early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services for low-income children and families.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Dr. Samuel and Dr. Futrell, both of whom have been at the center of the Administration’s work to support students and communities across the nation. They both shared how their backgrounds as educators shape their service in the Biden-Harris Administration, their experiences working on education policy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their advice for young people wanting to enter public service. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden talks with Mrs. Becky Taylor’s fifth grade writing students during her tour of the Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, New Hampshire.

NS: To begin, can you tell us about the mission of your respective offices?

BF: Head Start is all about bringing more of our children into a cycle of learning so they can become our future leaders. We strive for a full view of what it takes to change communities and lives, which requires a two generational approach. And the way we do this is fundamentally through equity. Head Start is here to provide equitable access to ensure better health and education outcomes for children and their families. 

I was only four years old when I joined the Head Start family as a “Head Start Baby.” When I got on the Head Start bus, my family went on that same bus with me. After enrolling, the staff at Head Start started asking my sister, who was my guardian, questions about her goals and future plans. They asked if she wanted to go to college and how they could make her goals happen. Today, we are both involved in education at a leadership level because Head Start worked for us.

Head Start is not just traditional school readiness – it’s school readiness and. Services include early childhood education, nutrition, physical and mental health, family supports, transportation, and more. Head Start’s comprehensive partnership with families really shapes communities, not just individual children. It’s an investment in the community, and it creates the opportunity for a community to invest their children and families. 

AS: One of the things the pandemic has done is put a spotlight on the role of schools and just how critical of a role schools play in child stability, family stability, and community stability. At the Department of Education, we want to ensure that every child has access to a school community, which is itself a subset of a broader community.

Something Secretary Cardona makes it a point to highlight – and it’s something that I full-heartedly believe – is that education is a fundamental civil right. Everyone has a right to a quality education, regardless of zip code, regardless of state, and regardless of politics.

Like the Secretary, I too was public school educated all the way through. I am a first-generation American and the first in my family to have a PhD. Those “firsts” can only come with access. Access to a school is so critical because it also means access to mental health support, food and nutrition, a sense of community, and a sense of belonging. That really is what education is – the motherboard that plugs into health, nutrition, transportation, everything. And seeing schools closed for eighteen months really amplifies what students lose when they don’t have access to school.

Our mission is making sure that every child has access to a high-quality learning environment coming out of the pandemic and educators have the support they need to effectively nurture and teach the next generation.

NS: There are so many reasons to be proud of the Biden-Harris Administration, but one reason I’m especially proud is that there’s a real acknowledgment of how intersectional and cross-cutting every policy is – what I’m hearing from you is that education policy doesn’t solely affect the classroom.

Given the on-going COVID-19 pandemic – which has certainly affected life inside and outside of the classroom – what is it like to be involved in education work during such an unprecedented time?

AS: Answering the call to this work is why I joined the Administration. Recognizing we were in a period of uncertainty and transition and change was ultimately the catalyst that motivated me to step down from my previous role and serve in the Department of Education.

I’m the parent of two boys of color in public education who are seven and ten – a 2nd grader and 5th grader. They both went through virtual learning. So, I always see things from a parent’s perspective. 

I was also a teacher, a practitioner, so I’m thinking, “How would I teach my third graders?” As a former principal, I’m also putting myself in the school, thinking through how national policies might have affected me in that role.

That’s my “Three P’s” test – how can I see this as a parent, a practitioner, and a principal? These professional and personal perspectives allow me to ensure I’m fundamentally understanding the policy. The pandemic and my previous experience really brought me to this work today and drives me daily.

BF: This is definitely a moment of “never before.” When the pandemic first started, there was also a call for social justice – we had to see the systemic racism that was right in front of us while also trying to acknowledge the stress school closures put on education systems.

When things like this happen all at once, we all look for hope and leadership. Because I am a wife, a mom of two young children, and a believer that we can do more when we come together than when we are on our own, I raised my hand high to answer President Biden’s call to join together to build America back better.

Our Head Start families have been disproportionately affected in every regard – less access to health care, more affected by racism, and more likely to have worse outcomes. Knowing this, I’m using this moment to encourage the Head Start community and remind them that what they are doing matters.

Head Start itself was born out of the Civil Rights Movement, born and created in times just like these – moments in which we realize the lived experiences of our neighbors should matter when we make policy. We need to see social equity as a driver to move us forward, and this is the moment to do that.

NS: In PPO, we like to say that people are policy. We’re always searching for appointees whose personal and professional experiences will inform their work to make our country a better place.

Dr. Futrell, you were a Head Start child, and began your career as an assistant Head Start teacher, and now you’re leading the Office of Head Start for our nation. How does your experience with Head Start affect your work today?

BF: It’s my lens; it’s my everything. I know what it feels like to benefit from Head Start – and I also know what it feels like to not have those connections and support. I know that my life changed because of Head Start, and for so many others, Head Start is making an investment in children, families, and communities.

One of the first things that I did as Director of the Office of Head Start was launch Head Start Forward, an initiative to support Head Start programs in getting back to in-person services. Head Start Forward is about using everything that we have been through – good and bad – to build a future in which more children and families have better education, health, and economic outcomes. 

My commitment is to do whatever it takes so that Head Start continues to move forward and show up for the one million children and families who show up in a Head Start classroom each year. From my time working in a Head Start program, I learned early on that our belief in parents and families as the most influential and important people in their children’s lives, along with providing comprehensive services, are ingredients that yield long-term benefits. My work is informed by this commitment and belief.

NS: We’re proud that 1 in 3 of our political appointees at the Department of Education are former educators or folks with classroom experience.

Dr. Samuel, you’re a former elementary special education teacher, assistant principal, and principal – and now you’re in a leadership position at the Department of Education. Can you tell us about how your past experiences with education work inform your service in the Biden-Harris Administration?

AS: I will say that it really funnels down to authenticity. It is my obligation to really think about how we engage, who we engage, and when we engage and to bring those stories back into the Department.

It’s like air traffic control, which is so critical to knowing when planes should land and when planes have to circle. Something happening in D.C. can affect a plane as far away as San Diego. I’m able to serve that role within the Department – I try to figure out how our policy will land in the field.

I strive to have real and authentic conversations, especially with individuals who have not had a seat at the table and whose voices have not been heard. The reality is, when we make policy, it’s not a policy for “X number” of people – it’s a policy that affects a real person in Milwaukee or a real person in Mobile.

That impact of federal policy – the fact that it affects real individuals across the nation – is why I left my role as a principal. We were in the middle of a recession, and we had to take a 25 percent budget cut. These policy implications were hitting me as a leader, and here in the Administration, I bring those reminders into my work every day.

I also think about my kids at pick up and drop off from school – I get the emails from administrators; I see principals interacting with students, doing the work on the ground to serve their schools. I always want to bring in that authenticity of voice and experience – it’s what drives me every single day.

NS: You’ve both taken a path of service from a classroom setting to the top levels of federal government. What advice would you give to students who might be inspired by your work to also pursue public service, but don’t know where to start?

AS: I mentor a lot of young people, and I tell them it’s really about two things. First, don’t let position and power drive you – it will not get you where you need to go.

Second, find your purpose and passion, and stay with that. No one could have ever told me ten years ago that I would one day be a political appointee. But education was my passion and purpose – I came from a single-parent home, I’m a first-generation American, and I’m always making sure that I stay true to that. I tell students to do the same – find your purpose, live your passion, and just watch life unfold.

BF: My advice for everyone is to start by asking questions. It may be challenging at times to lift up your voice, but what you have to say may be the missing piece to the bigger picture – and being part of a bigger picture means looking for more questions than answers. If you have that perspective, that’s how you can get to a position to change policies, impact generations, and change the world.

Nina Srivastava currently serves as Associate Director for Domestic Personnel in the Presidential Personnel Office. She previously served on the Biden-Harris Transition and Campaign teams. Prior to entering public service, Srivastava worked in higher education for her alma mater, Harvard University. She has also worked for the U.S. Department of Education’s Presidential Scholars Program and enjoys mentoring high school and college students in her free time. She is a proud granddaughter of educators, daughter of immigrants, and a born and bred South Carolinian.

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