Meet our Team
A Conversation with Jessica Sawko, Associate Director, California STEM Network
Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy
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January 21, 2021
On joining the Peace Corps after undergrad
After graduation – I attended Hollins College (now University), an all-women’s college in Virginia – I joined the Peace Corps, and spent two years and three months in Panama as a community economic development volunteer.
I’m fluent in Spanish; I minored in it in college and spent a semester abroad in Puebla, Mexico, which was incredibly valuable during my time in Panama.
I did a lot while I was there – from helping the local women improve their business skills and knowledge to encouraging the young girls in our town to start the first women’s soccer team in the community! It took a lot to convince their fathers, brothers, and other male family members to allow them to do this, but in the end, we made it happen together. While in the Peace Corps I also worked on planning professional development opportunities for other volunteers and their host country counterparts on developing community-based strategic plans.
On life before Children Now
I’ve been with Children Now for about a year and a half.
Prior to joining the team here, I was the executive director of the California Science Teachers Association (CSTA, now the California Association of Science Educators) for eight of my 13 years at the Association.
In 2013, CSTA held a leadership position within the overall statewide effort to support the adoption and implementation of the California Next Generation Science Standards. The Association members and I played a role in every facet of standards implementation, from review and adoption of the standards, to the writing of the curriculum framework, from the writing and design of the statewide assessments to advocacy for accountability tied to those assessments. Our work also involved updating the subject matter competencies for teacher preparation in science, the design and delivery of professional learning, and successful advocacy for funding of professional learning and teacher recruitment and retention.
Because of my work at CSTA, I was familiar and collaborated regularly with the California STEM Learning Network (now the California STEM Network). When the Network transitioned to Children Now in 2016, I got to know the Children Now education team pretty well. This worked out really nicely for me; when I left CSTA to focus more on policy and advocacy, I joined Children Now and began working with a team of people with whom I’d already collaborated.
On a culture of collaboration, and taking a holistic approach
One of the things that I really appreciate about Children Now is our culture of collaboration. We aren’t a top-down organization. Of course, there is leadership, but we take a collaborative approach to the work we do, and I think that improves our ability to affect change and achieve policy wins.
This also ties into the interdisciplinary nature of the children’s field itself. At Children Now, we look at the whole child. There are so many issues that impact kids’ lives – from health and education to immigration and poverty – they can’t be approached individually. My work on STEM education is just one piece of the larger tapestry that Children Now addresses; it’s part of a coordinated effort.
Knowing that the work I’m doing makes a difference and improves the lives of others is something that’s always been important to me, and I see that impact in my work at Children Now.
On the teacher shortage
California is dealing with a teacher shortage across the board, but the situation is especially dire for STEM teachers and particularly, STEM teachers of color. Programs designed to address this shortage often only receive one-time funding. Sustained funding is critical in order to have a lasting impact on this long-term problem. Far too regularly, we see one-time dollars resulting in short-term solutions.
The situation has only worsened during the pandemic: we’ve seen a large number of educators leave the workforce, and as has been the case with so much of what’s going on related to COVID-19, children of color and children in low-income communities are bearing the burden of this shortage.
As a team, this issue is a priority for us in 2021. We need to continue to invest in and support the recruitment and retention of diverse, high-quality STEM teachers.
On why STEM education is so important
STEM plays such a critical role of importance in a child’s education as it’s not a single subject, but rather an interdisciplinary approach, similar to life in many ways.
Kids who experience a high-quality STEM education have an opportunity to grapple with complex issues and come up with their own solutions. They gain so many valuable skills as a result, skills that will benefit them long into adulthood – collaboration, communication, critical thinking. These are all things we know are important to future employers, to becoming an engaged member of society, and to making informed decisions.
STEM education gives kids and young people a needed framework by which to approach life and the challenges and opportunities it presents.
On engaging more girls and kids of color in STEM
We need to engage girls and kids of color in STEM because we need the diversity of thought and background. The richness of these different experiences will expand and enrich the field itself.
So much of our economy is based on STEM-connected fields, here in California we see that prominently, but it’s true all over the world, and we need to be preparing all kids to participate in these careers, not just a select few. STEM-based jobs generally pay better, and this means elevating the income of families and communities, and eventually improving outcomes for future generations. An education in STEM has truly far-reaching impacts, particularly for those furthest from opportunity due to institutional barriers such as systemic racism.
On other dream jobs
If not this one, I have two other dream jobs. The first is to be a bartender in a bar/restaurant that has a view of the ocean – Key West would be nice – so I can feel the warm trade winds as I mix drinks. And the second is something I did in college, which is being a tour guide – I can see myself leading tourists through Europe on a bus; I love answering people’s questions and sharing fun facts.
On life outside of work
I spend most of my time with my family, which includes two kids (ages 10 and 7), my husband, and our dog.
We’ve definitely gone through phases over the course of the pandemic. At first, we were much more gung-ho – doing a lot of puzzles together and making masks. I bought a sewing machine and even made a dress for my daughter!
During the summer, when the outlook was a bit more promising, and things were starting to re-open, we took a family trip to Oceanside for some beach time (complete with matching homemade flamingo masks).
Of course, that has since changed and we’re back to spending a lot of our time at home together.
On things to look forward to
I’m looking forward to the time when all California kids will be able to return to school in-person, safely. I hope this will happen soon.
Personally, once we gain control of the pandemic and things are more normal, I can’t wait to hug my mom again, and am excited to engage in holiday traditions as an extended family together, and not on Zoom (as was the case this past Christmas).
Editor’s note: after she left CSTA, the Association established an award in her honor – the Jessica Sawko Teacher Leadership Award – which celebrates “a teacher instructional coach, teacher on special assignment, or similarly designated role at the district level who has made a significant contribution to improve the quality of science education within their district and who, through their leadership and service in coaching, facilitating, and providing professional learning, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching.” Learn more here: https://cascience.org/programs/current-award-winners