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An interview with Erika Saiers, PJA's Director of Early Childhood Education

An interview with Erika Saiers, PJA's Director of Early Childhood Education
By Erika Saiers

Erika Saiers interviewed by PDX Parent Magazine

1. As the director of Early Childhood education at Portland Jewish Academy, what are the biggest challenges you face in your job?  

On the human front: My biggest challenges are making critical decisions around the health, safety and well-being of people, particularly our unvaccinated children. In the beginning of the pandemic, I needed to build trust with staff that coming back to work was going to be okay, when at times I needed to trust myself with the decisions we were making about something we knew little about. Thankfully, I work on a collaborative team with excellent thinkers and problem solvers. We worked from research and science and did not let fear take over. Even though our staff at PJA is fully vaccinated, working in an unvaccinated environment makes decision-making critical in keeping our community safe as things are constantly changing in the world of Covid-19.

On the business front: My biggest challenge is staffing shortages as well as retaining extremely talented and valuable educators in the field. Early Childhood educators are paid extremely low wages for the work they do, especially given the high expectations placed on them.

2. Portland—like many other cities—is facing a shrinking number of Early Childcare providers. From a business standpoint, how has PJA been able to retain educators? 

Nationwide, Early Childhood programs have had to shut their doors or at least minimize their enrollment numbers due to staffing shortages. At PJA we have decreased our enrollment by 25%; however we were able to retain our current staff and have had very little turnover during the past 2 years. PJA has continued to keep class sizes small, maintain consistent cohorts and shortened our hours so that staff and families have the assurance of a safe and nurturing environment. PJA supports Early Childhood educators with competitive pay, full health benefits and generous sick and vacation time. We also received grants that kept all staff paid during the shutdown. When many programs weren’t able to give raises, PJA’s administration and board prioritized Early Childhood educators, gave annual increases, and is currently looking at ways to increase Early Childhood educators’ wages in the new year. PJA strategically enrolled children based on the staff who committed to return. Many programs enrolled based on need and then had to close classrooms due to staffing shortages. We did the opposite; we enrolled based on our staffing. This has created a transparent and trusting relationship for our school community

3. What feedback do you frequently receive from your coworkers and fellow Early Childhood educators?

The feedback in the beginning of the pandemic was one of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. As Early Childhood educators and administrators, we became physicians, scientists, mental health support, strategic planners as well as Early Childhood educators. The feedback I receive from our educators now is one of joy, pride and opportunity. We have built strong connections with children and families, and we are able to provide children what they need and deserve in such volatile times.

I also have the opportunity to interface with other Early Childhood administrators, both locally and nationally, and the feedback focuses on the struggles with the staffing shortages and finding funds to pay educators - not just a living wage, but a wage that honors the work they do. Educators are looking to leave the field, and our hope is to bring them back and encourage new educators to enter the field of Early Childhood education. It truly is a gift.

4. And what feedback do you frequently receive from parents whose children attend PJA? 

I truly feel honored and blessed to work in our community. I sincerely don’t think I could’ve continued the work if it wasn’t for our families. Our families have been so kind, supportive, patient and trusting. We consistently receive notes of gratitude for the work we do each day. Our families are thankful that their children have the opportunity to live life as children, be with friends and develop strong relationships and social and emotional skills during a very challenging time.

5. What would you like parents to understand about your industry right now?

I would like everyone to understand the importance and value of high quality Early Childhood education. We have the opportunity and responsibility to guide children during a very critical time in their lives. The work that Early Childhood educators do sometimes goes unnoticed and is looked at as “daycare” or “preschool,” with “real school” beginning at kindergarten. The truth be told, the foundation of a person is being established in the first three years of life. Our social and emotional selves are being explored; we learn to explore, inquire about the world around us and afar. Children are viewed as thinkers and as empathetic individuals who care for and engage with their peers and contribute to the community. 

6. How has Early Childhood education changed in the last five years? What do you see for the next five? 

Over the past 5-10 years there has been a shift to and focus on the social and emotional development of children as the foundation of curriculum development, and programs have moved away from a more standardized/preset curriculum. Educators are encouraged to create curriculum that includes the children’s ideas and interests. It is more of an emergent approach which reinforces that the children are being listened to and included in the planning.

I believe that the pandemic has afforded us an opportunity to look at our policies and practices more closely and make changes that best support children. My hope moving forward is that we really look at how change can best support the development of children, support families and instill best practices for sustainable Early Childhood programs. My hope for the future is that you will see more intentional programming with high standards for the well-being of children.
7. What policies and/or practices would you like to see instituted in Portland’s Early Childhood care industry? 

As I mentioned, we needed to reevaluate our policies and procedures to reopen our doors during Covid-19. One of the policies and practices I would like to uphold are smaller class sizes. Children are much more regulated in a smaller community; it truly feels like a family with trusting relationships. Children have also really benefited from having consistent cohort communities with fewer transitions. The stability and reliability of the environment has been extremely successful in supporting the needs of young children. The other enhancement to children’s success at school has been a slightly shorter day, and I would like to continue this practice, if possible, and support the needs of families. 

A practice that PJA has instituted is our commitment to Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Access (DEIA). Previously, we had been able to do some professional development on DEIA practices, and over the past couple of years we’ve recognized that it is our social responsibility to prioritize this work. Considering our crucial role in the growth and development of young children, we believe that we must place emphasis on professional development that is proactively race cognizant and anti-racist. As an organization, we acknowledge that delaying this work is a form of silence, and that silence and inaction contribute to racism in our society. Therefore, we are committing ourselves to taking action and living our values, knowing that conscious action is required to break down anti-racist history and systems and reevaluate and develop our multicultural curriculum in a more thoughtful and engaging way.

8. How do you folks feel about Multnomah County’s Preschool for All program? Do you plan to take part in it?

We strongly believe that all children deserve high quality Early Childhood programs and Preschool for All is a great step in achieving that goal. I have had the opportunity to attend informational sessions and fully support the program. At this time, PJA isn’t eligible to participate because of our religious affiliation. My hope is that once the program gets established they will look at ways of expanding their program to religious schools. PJA is a community Jewish School that isn’t aligned with a specific religious movement, everyone is welcome and my hope is that we will be able to participate in the near future.