"The assistant director position was open and I hadn't seen anything from Alexa. I asked her to make an appointment with me, and told her, 'You have everything it takes to have a very successful career in this field'. She's extremely committed, bright, innovative … and has lots of ideas."
Those encouraging words are from Karen J. Booth, Director of the Child and Family Center at Rockefeller University, and refer to BMCC alumna Alexa Pomales, whose progress building a career in early childhood education has been right on track-once she discovered it.
Setting a new course
"I went straight from high school to City College, majoring in Liberal Arts," says Pomales, "but I didn't do well. I didn't know where I fitted in. So, I took a couple years off, worked at K-Mart on 34th Street, and lived at home."
Returning to school, she chose BMCC because "I figured I could bring my grade point average up, and then transfer to a four-year school," she says-but her direction sharpened one day, in her first semester.
"I was walking down the hallway, and I saw these pamphlets about early childhood education," she says. "I thought to myself, 'You can teach babies? How does that happen?'"
Intrigued, she went inside the teacher education office, spoke to the staff, and though it added a bit of time to her educational path, changed her major to early childhood education, graduating from BMCC in 2003.
Next, she completed a bachelor's degree in psychology at Hunter College, then in 2011 graduated with a Master in Early Childhood Education from City College-working all the while at the Child and Family Center at Rockefeller University.
"I started there as a student teacher from BMCC, then took the afternoon teacher position while I was finishing my associate degree," Pomales says. Eventually, she moved into the role of Head Teacher, and was promoted to the position of Assistant Director in August 2012.
The developmental approach
The Rockefeller University Child and Family Center is a year-round, full-time program for children ages three months to five years, and serves the families of "people who work at the university, post-docs, lab heads, and others," says Pomales.
As Assistant Director, she guides the teachers in planning curricula and supporting the Center's philosophy, which is one of "developmental interaction."
"We base education on where children are developmentally," explains Director Booth. "It's learning through interaction."
Studying psychology between her two degrees in early childhood education, Pomales says, has helped her be aware of children's development, and also "gives me insight into how to engage with the families, how to understand them more."
Communicating about a child's learning to his or her parents is an important facet of her role as assistant director.
"I love being a witness to a child's growth, and seeing the progression of their development," she says. "There's not one day goes by, that I am not amazed at their growth."
Supporting teachers' growth
"We do a lot of staff development, workshops on areas the teachers themselves suggest," Pomales says, "such as how to support children's learning in activities like block building or sewing, where they don't actually use a needle and thread, but string together cut-out shapes and objects."
Her professors at BMCC, she adds, continue to inspire her.
"As a teacher of young children, you don't want to be talking down to them or telling them what to do all the time, and our professors at BMCC treated us that same way. They were great models," she says.
"Rachel Theilheimer is one person I remember vividly. She was very descriptive when she spoke about a child or a classroom practice. She welcomed our ideas-and that's the kind of assistant director I'm trying to be. I also try to be very descriptive with parents, reporting on their child's day."
Born in the midtown part of Manhattan known as "Hell's Kitchen," Alexa Pomales graduated from Cathedral High School, and was the oldest of three children.
Her mother came to New York from Peru as a small child. She worked as a hotel housekeeper, and ran a family childcare center out of the home Alexa grew up in. Her father moved to New York from Puerto Rico, and worked as a bicycle messenger.
"My mom had such a gift with children," says Pomales. "My dad was always on the floor playing with them, while my mom was very structured. So I learned from both of them."
She recommends a career teaching small children, but "only for people who have a passion for education," she says. "There needs to be a love and a passion for the field."
That passion can translate to going the extra mile to support a child's learning.
"We had a child a few years ago who was presenting some red flags in the classroom," she says. "It was obvious he needed more outside play, more physical play. He also needed shoes that fit him better; he was falling a lot, so the teachers and staff all chipped in, and we bought him a pair of shoes. We also held a parent-teacher conference at the child's house, to make it easier for the family, and the parents were very touched by, very appreciative of the support."
Building trust with parents is vital, she explains. When the staff at the Center recommended moving the child to a classroom that was just below his age group-but was more developmentally appropriate-his parents were ready to accept the idea.
"We just wanted him to be in a place where he could grow," Pomales says. "The parents understood that we all wanted the same thing."