The Leadership Initiative invited its members to reflect on different aspects of leadership, bringing to light unique pathways, approaches, challenges and lessons learned. TLC hopes that through this series you get to know these diverse individuals and take away an appreciation for their journeys and leadership skills and its impact on the lives of children, families, their staff and communities.
Dr. Yessenia Rosario-Adon is the Educational Director of Rena Day Care, Inc. in Washington Heights. She was a Head Start parent and elected to the city-wide DAPC (Head Start’s Delegate Agency Policy Council). She graduated from Binghamton University and Lehman College. She also received her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from The Sage Colleges in 2017. Yessenia has been a member of the Leadership Initiative since 2018.
What experiences or individuals inspired you to pursue a career in early childhood and a leadership role?
I immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of 13. Throughout much of my American education I didn’t understand the culture and language and yet was still expected to perform and graded to my counterparts that were acclimated to the American culture. This experience sowed the seeds of the importance of making sure what you deliver is what people need. I wasn’t getting 6.5 hours of education each day because the majority of my day was spent not knowing what I was doing.
I am a product of single mother who worked 8am-8pm. She didn’t have time to come to my school functions or parent conferences because missing two or three hours of work meant less income to meet the needs of her three children. This has greatly impacted how I think about family engagement in early childhood. When families aren’t attending school functions or meetings I think of my mom. We can’t say that these families don’t care. They do care. My mom cared but she was balancing the needs of our family and being the sole provider.
In 1996 I was accepted to Binghamton University where I received my undergraduate degree and then my Masters in multicultural affairs. I had a challenging experience with my first academic advisor there who told me that there was no way I could hack it and I might as well go back to the Dominican Republic. Despite her discouragement I stayed and completed my degrees and later had an opportunity to confront her about her discrimination towards me. This experience with her planted another seed for me, one of wanting to become an academic advisor so that others did not feel discouraged and could seek and receive the guidance and encouragement they needed to succeed. I wasn’t going to turn students down and tell them they couldn’t dream.
My pathway into the early childhood field started in 2003 when I was a substitute teacher in a 3’s classroom. I observed a group of preschoolers exploring with water and attempting to capture water using only their hands. I observed how intent they were at solving the problem and I realized then and there how important our role as early childhood educators is. We truly are responsible for laying the foundation for lifelong learning. I decided to enroll for my Master’s of Science in Education degree because I wanted to learn the theories behind early childhood.
In 2006 I took a few years off to take care of my kids. In 2010 I was in a “mommy and me” program in Head Start with my child. I saw the potential in it so I participated in the DAPC (Delegate Agency Policy Council). Through that experience I got to go to California for training and I was elected to the city-wide parent policy council in NYC.
Having been a teacher, a parent in the program, and involved in the DAPC, I felt confident in my leadership skills and decided to apply for an Education Director position. I got feedback that I didn’t yet have my degree, so I got a position as a Coordinator. Despite this I really tried to be a leader and make real change. My supervisor told me I shouldn’t be so loud about my work because I didn’t have a degree, I didn’t have the credentials to back up who I was trying to be. So I went and finished my Master’s degree in Early Childhood at Lehman College and then got my teaching license.
I was promoted to Education Director. I then went on to enroll in a doctoral program. Six months into my doctoral program my husband passed away, and I was ready to quit. My kids told me that I couldn’t quit, so I stuck with it. In 2017 I obtained my doctorate (EdD) in Educational Leadership and my School District Leadership credential and currently work as an Education Director.
I wanted to make sure that I had everything an individual theoretically could have by way of degrees and credentials. For me, my degrees allow me to get people to give me the time of day and listen to me and trust me. I got my degrees to push the field forward.
Through all of these life experiences I have built a commitment to making sure that my support is holistic. Anyone who walks through the door of my program will be supported and encouraged. I strive to make sure teachers and staff feel supported, that families are understood and welcomed, and that children feel that they belong.
What has been your most important accomplishment as a leader in early childhood?
Being able to support families with exercising their roles not only as primary caregivers but as advocates for their children’s overall wellbeing. Encouraging teachers of all levels to pursue college degrees and become certified continues to be one of my most rewarding supervisory accomplishments. Partnering with community partners to enhance the quality of ECE in our preschool is also a big one for me.
Tell us about how determination and persistence play a role in your leadership.
I often think back to that experience in 2003, observing the children at the water table trying to solve big problems. It inspires me to stay determined and persist in wanting to provide our children, their families and our staff with a holistic, systemic, quality-based early childhood experience. I seek to partner with others to ensure a holistic approach to caring and educating our youngest learners. I wholeheartedly believe in our field and in what we do for our staff, students and their families.
My challenging life experiences have actually given me the energy to be positive. I think back to my challenges with acclimating to the American education system when I immigrated here at the age of 13. I think about my mom working so hard to meet our needs and provide for her family. I think back to my first academic advisor in college who exhibited discrimination towards me and discouraged me. These experiences make me think about who my actions and mindset affect. I think about others, about my 40 employees, about the children, about the families. I show up every day as my best self.
Anything else you want to add/share?
For me, this field has been a love affair where I believe the sky is the limit for us. We are given the opportunity to truly collaborate with families in providing our youngest learners with learning experiences that will help them form their own ideas of who they are and what their roles will be in society. We are blessed to have this be our duty.
Jenna Pettinicchi is the Assistant Director of the Institute’s Early Childhood Leadership Initiative.