Throughout the 2019–2020 school year, our We Are DOE series will highlight some of the everyday heroes of NYC’s public schools. Featuring a cross-section of the DOE’s 140,000+ employees across the five boroughs, We Are DOE showcases some of the many unsung people who help keep the largest school system in the country running daily.
Today, please welcome Darlene Sierra, a 3-K/pre-k social worker who works with early childhood education programs in Staten Island.
“My work with 3-K and pre-k children, families, and teachers focuses on their social and emotional life,” says Darlene Sierra, a social worker helping to support 10 Staten Island early childhood programs as part of the DOE’s Division of Early Childhood Education. “What are we doing for each child so that they can feel good about themselves every single day? The goal is to create a sense of family and unity in our classrooms.”
Darlene visits two programs each day. At the first, she greets families and children outside at drop off, before working with teachers and students in their classrooms throughout the morning. Around 12:30, after nap-time and lunch, she travels to the second program for the afternoon. By the end of each week, she will have rotated to all 10 of her programs. “I hop around like a bunny trying to make myself very well known in the programs to develop relationships with families and children.”
A graduate of Long Island University and NYU, where she received her master’s degree in social work, Darlene started her career in 1989 at Brooklyn Hospital counseling children with sickle cell anemia before joining the DOE in different social work capacities. When Mayor de Blasio launched Pre-K for All and then 3-K for All, Darlene says, “I was excited to join the bandwagon and have been diving fiercely into it with my colleagues. We are providing lots of children and families with an opportunity for a high quality education by reaching them much earlier in their lives than in the past.”
Pre-K for All has continued to expand since it launched in 2014, providing free, high-quality, full-day pre-k to families in all five boroughs, serving nearly 70,000 children today. Building on the success of Pre-K for All, the Mayor launched 3-K for All in 2017, bringing the same high-quality programming to three-year-olds across New York City. 3-K for All is expanding to a growing number of school districts, including Staten Island this school year.
Darlene spends a lot of time with parents in workshops and one-on-one sharing ideas for helping them to build their children’s language and social skills. Much of that guidance focuses on increasing verbal interactions while minimizing technology like computer devices and television. She says, “Talking to your children while they’re playing or taking a walk; introducing labels for things as basic as a tree or a stop light; and doing activities with them like taking them to the grocery store. Those activities build language skills that they cannot get on a computer or cell phone at their young age.”
What’s happening in Darlene’s 3-K classrooms mirrors the DOE’s expansion of social-emotional learning citywide and across grade levels, which is one of Chancellor Richard Carranza’s foremost priorities. According to studies, students who have social-emotional skills—the ability to name, manage, and share their feelings—display more understanding, have stronger relationships with their classmates, communicate better with their teachers, and show improved academic performance. And these skills follow them throughout their lives.
The DOE’s Division of Early Childhood Education assigns 170 social workers to a portfolio of programs, along with instructional coordinators, policy support specialists, and others who coordinate to support the social and emotional well-being of young children. In that vein, Darlene even teaches yoga workshops for both children and teachers, focusing especially on how to create a sense of calm. She says: “Yoga has become a real big thing in 3-K and pre-k because of the meditation aspect of it—showing the children how to breathe and count to 10 when they’re upset.”
Ironically, Darlene has found that naptime can be the hardest part of the school day, especially for the younger three-year-olds. “A lot of them are used to being cuddled or rocked by their moms. So we try to quiet them down by rubbing their backs, scratching their heads, and playing soft lullaby music. For the kids who don’t sleep, I usually sit at a table and do a quiet activity with them. Then I have my lunch and go on to my next school. I really feel like my colleagues and I are making a difference in the children’s lives.”