Voices from the Field: Aaliyah Samuel

“…high-quality early childhood is the remedy for strong, young productive citizens entering not just our workplace and our economy, but really becoming global citizens.”


Interview with Aaliyah Samuel, Division Director
National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices’ Education Division
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

As Education Division Director, Dr. Aaliyah Samuel focuses on early care and education policies from birth to third grade, aligning early care and education with K-12 policies related to issues such as workforce development, learning standards, assessment, math and early literacy and language development. Prior to joining NGA, Samuel served as senior director of family support and literacy at First Things First and as elementary principal at the Tucson Unified School District. She also served as assistant principal of elementary special education, general education instructor and English speakers of other languages adult education instructor at the Hillsborough County Schools.

Steven: How did you begin your career in Early Learning?

Aaliyah: I was an elementary school assistant principal in Florida, which as you know is a “third grade retention state.” And as we were preparing kids’ portfolios – and it was my first year having to retain kids – I just thought to myself, “Why are not we supporting these kids earlier?” And so through my dissertation work, I started looking at effective reading interventions for parents in the primary grades. I started working summers as a voluntary Florida UPK site director and started working with pre-k kids, kindergarten, 1, 2, and their parents and families around reading strategies and interventions.  That’s when my love began. I actually tracked the kids I worked with until I left Florida and they were all third graders, and none of those kids I worked with for my dissertation were retained. I saw my passion for getting kids ready and supporting their families so they knew what to do to get their kids reading.  It grew from there.

Steven: What do you see as the role of bipartisan organizations such as yours in improving access to quality early learning programs?

Aaliyah: From my perspective, it is bringing an awareness around this particular issue from multiple avenues. One is recognizing that most governors are either a workforce governor or an education governor and/or both. Early childhood really fits into the workforce in so many ways, from the young children being the actual pipeline to the actual providers that are getting these young children ready for school so the parents and families can depend on early childcare. So it really is the nexus of all things related to a state’s economy and a state’s education. Bringing that level of awareness is really a primary role.

Steven: Why would you say President Obama’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning programs is important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities, particularly as it may relate to equity?

Aaliyah: As the President tries to reposition America as the powerhouse country we have been, and can continue to be, we need to really look at how we can make improvements in education, and elevating early childhood is how we make that change. Granted, it’s not one of those investments you’ll see [pay off] over night, but in the long run, when we really look at, not just school readiness, but look at the whole child, high-quality early childhood is the remedy for strong, young productive citizens entering not just our workplace and our economy, but really becoming global citizens. And then to address equity, we know more and more that strong interventions can really be the platform to help poor children and families, who are struggling with multiple risk factors. If we can provide those supports in areas where there may be gaps, it only creates a stronger playing field for those children who might not have the same opportunities and/or access as their peers. So it’s just an equalizer in so many different ways.