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Debra McMannis is the new director of the child development division at the California Department of Education. The division has been without a leader since Camille Maben left in late 2012 to lead the statewide First 5 commission. In her new position McMannis will oversee the state’s publicly funded preschool program, the effort to align early childhood programs with the Common Core standards and the growth of the state’s newest grade, transitional kindergarten.

McMannis has been in early child care for more than 25 years and joined the state department after working as a teacher and administrator at the San Juan Unified School District, where she focused on early learning programs. She has worked with the state preschool program, the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs, and others, the education department said in a news release.

Debra McMannis
Debra McMannis

McMannis sat down with EdSource Today to discuss her goals to restore funding to early childhood programs, develop a quality rating system for preschools and participate in the national Preschool for All program proposed by President Barack Obama.

Excerpts of the interview are below.

EdSource Today: What do you see as your main goal in your new role as the child development division director?

Debra McMannis: My goals are to focus on the Race to the Top (Early Learning Challenge) grant – that’s very exciting work that’s happening. Another piece is focusing on aligning our systems with Common Core. (That will mean) really looking at a birth-through-third-grade system for California’s children. That’s always been a passion of mine. Also, the department has lost funding for California’s children and preschool children over the past several years, so we want to restore that funding.

EdSource: Can you tell me a little bit more about the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant? What’s been done so far and what will be done this year?

McMannis: Race to the Top has many different components to it. One of the important components is the quality rating improvement system. (We’re) really looking at what quality programs look like and how we help programs get there. The (rating system) is going to provide a lot of information for parents so that they can choose quality programs for their children, and it’s going to provide information for programs to know what they need to do to become quality programs.

EdSource: Will aligning the Common Core with early childhood programs mean you are changing the standards for the state preschool program?

McMannis: We have infant/toddler foundations* and we have the preschool foundations. So we’re really aligning the systems for young children by looking at their growth and development so that they are ready for school and ready for kindergarten. That is also aligned with the Common Core Standards, so it fits nicely with what’s happening and what’s going to be happening with Common Core and kindergarten.

*EdSource note: “Foundations” are similar to learning standards for older children. Here are the state’s preschool foundations.

EdSource: Are you optimistic that the child development programs will become fully funded at some point in the future?

McMannis: We have to be optimistic because we always have to be looking ahead and working hard for what’s best for children and families. Restoring funding is always going to be key. (That means) working with the Legislature and with the governor. I know it’s important for (state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson). We’ve lost more than 165,000 preschool and early learning spots in California, so those are children who are not getting early learning programs before kindergarten.

EdSource: President Barack Obama has proposed a federal grant program to expand state preschool. If that became a reality, would California be interested in participating?

McMannis: We’re looking forward to being able to apply for those grants at the federal level so that we can increase access for preschool children in California. We definitely want to be part of the president’s plan on that.

EdSource: Is there anything that you specifically bring to the office?

McMannis: The thing I’m most proud of is my experience out in the field. I did family child care, I was an infant/toddler teacher, I taught preschool and, most recently, I was an administrator. I want to bring that perspective to the department.

EdSource: The public early childhood care system in California is a patchwork of a lot of different programs and a lot of different funding streams. What role do you see the state department of education having in pre-kindergarten care in California?

McMannis: The California Department of Education takes a leading role in bringing together all of those pieces so that we have a comprehensive system and a system of choice for children and families in California. The superintendent has worked through advisory councils that bring all of these people together. We’re all in communication, we’re all working together and we’re aligning our systems. We’re working to have a cohesive system.

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