This wasn’t exactly the easiest moment to become the executive director of Boulder Valley School District’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) department, but Dr. Emma Herzog has jumped in with both feet, supported by an outstanding team.
“The district team has been doing a ton of work with Universal Pre-K and just making sure that we're up and running and ready to go,” Herzog said.
It has been a rocky start for the Colorado Universal Preschool Program (CUPP). Established by state law (HB22-1295), the new program offers up to 15 hours of free preschool to all 4-year-olds.
Everyone, including Herzog, agrees that setting a foundation of learning for young children is crucially important and BVSD has been a leader in this area for years.
“If we provide an excellent education to kids in their earliest years, research shows that it will make a critically important lifelong impact. So, when I think about really eliminating perpetual inequities that have existed, I think there's a real power and importance in the work that ECE does,” Herzog said.
She, however, doesn’t mince words, when talking about the rollout of the preschool program created by state law.
“I believe the policies put in place at the state level have been well-intended, but the rollout has been really messy and it has largely been outside of the control of the district,” Herzog said.
“It is one thing to have an idea about how to serve kids. It is another thing to put that idea into practice,” she added.
Together they’ve had to navigate delays in placing students and communicating with families; difficulties with the state’s BridgeCare software, used by preschool families to enroll; and recent CUPP officials backtracked on plans to provide full-time preschool to 11,000 students with risk factors because of a lack of funding.
“It has been a mess, but I've really been impressed with how the BVSD team has rallied, thought critically and found creative solutions,” Herzog said. “From what I can see in my short time, everyone is going above and beyond to make it work the best that it can for our families.”
As she gets to know her team in the ECE department, it is that commitment to students and families that has stood out to her.
“I am really excited to get to work with such an incredible team,” Herzog said. “We have such talented educators who keep kids at the center of everything they do. Across the district they are working so hard and being so thoughtful about what's best for kids.”
A life-long passion for equity
Herzog, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says her passion for serving students and equitable education started with a realization she had in high school.
“In Kindergarten, I was in a classroom with kids who were diverse on a variety of dimensions – racially, socioeconomically, and religiously,” Herzog recalled. “When I was in high school, I benefited from tracking when many of my Kindergarten peers did not, and when I graduated high school some of the kids I went to Kindergarten with were not there.”
“I recognized that I went through a school system that served me really well and prepared me really well. That wasn't true for some of the kids in my Kindergarten class,” Herzog said. “That helped me realize and understand that my privilege allowed me to access things that maybe other kids couldn’t access.”
In college, at Cornell in upstate New York, Herzog decided to lean into her Spanish courses and became fluent while studying abroad in Seville, Spain. She took a job teaching English in rural China for a summer and fell in love with teaching.
After graduation, she signed up with Teach America. She was placed in Texas while earning her teaching certificate and got a first-hand view of the challenges faced by learners and educators in impoverished communities.
“I was a bilingual first grade teacher, so I taught most of the day in Spanish. At that time San Antonio ISD had about a 60% graduation rate. Students in my class would come in often pretty far behind and would make amazing growth over the course of the year,” Herzog said. “Partnering with families to best support our students was an essential part of that.”
She says she learned a lot and loved the kids she taught and their families, often spending weekends at birthday parties. Consistently, however, she saw how systemic issues and turnover impacted the progress that was possible in the classroom, even with so many teachers working so hard.
After watching principal-after-principal leave her school and district, she decided to step into school leadership. Her master's program at Harvard brought her first to Lawrence, Massachusetts as an elementary dean of curriculum and instruction, and then to Waltham, Massachusetts, as an elementary principal.
“My school [in Waltham, Massachusetts] had about 430 kids, kindergarten through fifth grade and close to 85% were high needs and about 80% spoke a language other than English at home.”
Doctorate program brought her to BVSD
Herzog had every intention to return to that world, but she ultimately found her way to Boulder Valley when she was finishing up her doctoral program through Harvard University.
“I was pursuing my doctorate in education leadership,” Herzog explained. “It's a three year program and in your last year, you get to work full time in an organization and complete a capstone about a project you led in that organization.”
“Honestly, I wasn't initially looking at BVSD,” Herzog added. “But the more I researched, BVSD just came to the top for me.”
She says she was drawn to suburban Boulder Valley because of the All Together For All Students Strategic Plan.
“I care about equity for all kids and ensuring that everyone has an excellent education,” Herzog said. “It was the work everyone was doing here with Excellence Through Equity, in partnership with the community. The fact that everyone is really working to do right by kids and families aligned with what I believe.”
It didn’t hurt that her husband grew up here and wanted to move back.
“My husband is from Boulder (a 2006 Fairview High School graduate),” Herzog explained. “We have young kids and knew we wanted to head back to this area.”
So last year, she worked closely with the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education to determine better ways to serve multilingual students in our middle schools.
“I led a task force [with middle-level school leaders and educators] over the course of the year to look at best practice, what other districts are doing, and determine a pathway forward for BVSD,” Herzog said.
In her new role in Early Childhood Education, she will be leading all of BVSD’s efforts to support our youngest learners from three years old to third-grade.
Get to Know Emma
Here are a few more details, so you can get to know our new Early Childhood Education leader.
A very purple hairdo
Like many principals, Emma wasn’t above a little good, old fashioned bribery to encourage students to meet an important academic goal.
“If our kids read 500,000 minutes in eleven weeks, the assistant principal and I agreed to dye her hair purple,” Emma remembered. “It was based on a book, and a group of teachers came to us and asked us to do it. We couldn’t say no. The first year we did the challenge, everyone was reading, turning in their logs, but we didn't meet our goal. It was the saddest assembly. People said, ‘should we just lie? Should we fib?’ And it was like, ‘No. They didn't meet the goal. It was a great effort, work, and good perseverance, but not this year. Maybe next year.’”
It worked! The next year students hit the goal and she went purple.
“I’ve got a picture. We had a huge unveiling at the assembly and it was really nice,” Herzog said.
“I spent close to $300 at the salon,” she added with a laugh. “They had to bleach my hair first, and then I dyed it bright purple.”
“I was very glad that it ultimately happened after my wedding – because if they had hit the goal the first time it would have been before,” she said.
Reality TV fan
When Emma isn’t working and has a little time to herself, she loves to watch reality TV shows.
“Queer Eye. Love is Blind. What are some other good ones that I've just watched recently? We often watch Chopped and we are watching Food Truck Road Race right now,” Emma admitted. “We get into HGTV sometimes too.”
“I think I like things that allow me to mentally disconnect a little bit, are a little mindless and have feel-good vibes,” Emma added. “We have two young kids, so often reality TV is all I have the bandwidth for at the end of the day.”
On TV, in China
When Emma was teaching English in China she and a colleague were invited to be on a TV talk show.
“It is pretty incredible to say that I was on TV in China,” Emma said with a laugh. “I was on a talk show where I was teaching in China and I still have the DVD of it.”
While it was novel to have a westerner in the area, that wasn’t why she was invited.
“I didn't know it ahead of time, but the whole purpose of the talk show was to just make fun of my completely awful Mandarin,” Emma said. “I don't speak Mandarin. I speak Spanish, but not Mandarin.”
“The talk show hosts just said things in Mandarin and had us try to repeat them. The studio audience laughed at me and my colleague for about 15 minutes. But, yeah, that was fun,” Emma added dryly.