Michele Charmello and Javon Wright
Michele Charmello, executive director of Maple Unified Student Academy (MUSA), talks with Javon Wright, 5, as she completes her craft. Photo by John Beale.

Over her three-decade teaching career, Michele Charmello has seen a lot of pedagogy trends and theories come and go.

Now, as executive director of Maple Unified Student Academy (MUSA) in Homestead, it’s a simple yet urgent update of the traditional “3Rs” that’s making her more optimistic than ever about the power of early education to transform young lives and the communities where they live.

Today’s revised 3Rs stand for Reading, Racial Equity, Relationships — a refresh of the classic readin’, ‘ritin’, ‘rithmetic triad anchoring America’s fundamental approach to early education since the 19th century.

The new 3Rs methodology has been developed by The Pittsburgh Study, a multi-discipline program of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The study’s objective, says Charmello, “is to discover what practices work best to improve a child’s health and support health equity for children across Allegheny County.”

Charmello and her staff are ecstatic that MUSA has been chosen as a Pittsburgh Study community partner for a literacy program designed to boost reading proficiency among students in kindergarten through third grade. The 3Rs program gives children access to early childhood picture books that are racially affirming and involve positive themes of family participation.

“It is a core MUSA belief that the family is an integral part of a child’s learning and development,” Charmello says.

students at Maple Unified Student Academy in Homestead
Students at MUSA play during a “pep rally” at the school in June. Photo by John Beale.

Founded in 1922 by area Methodist churches as a settlement house initiative, MUSA was originally charged with helping to culturally assimilate Eastern European immigrant families streaming into local mill towns. In the early 2000s, the agency’s work shifted from broad social services to offering pre- and after-school educational programs to low-income children in Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead, McKeesport, Braddock, West Mifflin, Duquesne and other Mon Valley communities.

Education has been a lifelong calling for Charmello, who grew up in South Amboy, New Jersey, with a family occupational legacy of numerous teachers, police officers and other public service professionals.

A bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Training at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, supplemented by a master’s degree in Special Education at New Jersey City University and advanced studies in management at Cornell University, led Charmello to post-graduate work directing children and family services and early intervention services for Hudson Milestones in Jersey City. She also taught psychology and early childhood special education classes at Hudson County Community College and served two terms on the township council of Woodbridge, New Jersey before moving to Pittsburgh in 2015.

NEXTpittsburgh spoke to Charmello about the potential and challenges she sees in the field of early childhood education.

Michele Charmello, talks with Serenity Bray-Jones, 4, in one of the MUSA classrooms in Homestead. MUSA has been chosen as a Pittsburgh Study community partner for a literacy program designed to boost reading proficiency. Photo by John Beale.

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NEXTpittsburgh: Why are programs like MUSA so important to a child’s success?

Michele Charmello: The first three years of life are when the brain is developing at a rapid pace. At a very young age, children begin to build attachments to adults and others and learn to trust or not trust those around them. Exposure to their world through their five senses provides the building blocks for future learning. For decades, well-established research has shown us that having meaningful, engaging interactions between the ages of birth and age 5 creates positive effects on a child’s overall development.

NEXTpittsburgh: There’s that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Probably, it takes a few villages to chip in. How important are partnerships to what MUSA does?

Charmello: We are fortunate to have longstanding relationships with several partner agencies that provide funding and program enhancements — Carnegie of Homestead Library, Reading Ready Pittsburgh, Jefferson Regional Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, Grable Foundation, Allegheny County Department of Human Services and others. We’re exploring new partnerships with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Amity Community Garden. All these relationships add so much to the social and educational experience offered to our students.

NEXTpittsburgh: Has MUSA’s collaboration with The Pittsburgh Study begun?

Charmello: We had a kick-off event on June 12, and it was very exciting. Nosakhere Griffin-EL of The Young Dreamers’ Bookstore presented a workshop that showed families and teachers how to find books that are racially diverse and use them to initiate conversation, incorporate them into lessons and discussions and then guide parents in reading the books at home. He used “Nigel and the Moon” by Antwan Eady and Gracey Zhang, which has won several awards for its theme of children sharing dreams of their future.

Nikki Fechter, program director for MUSA Preschool in Homestead, reviews a lesson with Draya Beasley, 5, as Sire Rodriguez, 4, sits in the foreground. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: Is there a followup to the orientation?

Charmello: The next step is what we call “read-alouds.” We have local adults come in to read to the kids and work with them discussing what they’ve read. We also have a local author from Homestead in to do some readings. Then on Aug. 11, we had a final event that was a celebration, and children received their own books to take home.

NEXTpittsburgh: What is MUSA’s most critical challenge at the moment?

Charmello: The challenges we face are no different from what most employers face, a limited pool of qualified workers. Currently, statewide in Pennsylvania there are approximately 4,000 open positions in childcare programs, and that shortage of teachers and childcare workers pre-dates Covid. More than 2,000 childcare programs in Pennsylvania have closed since the pandemic began. We cannot meet the needs of our community if we are unable to hire more staff and expand to service more children and families. 

NEXTpittsburgh: How do you plan to address that?

Charmello: Our employees are our greatest resource. In fact, some of our staff are one-time MUSA children who have grown up and stayed in the community and now work for us. They have the skill and talent and patience — as well as the passion — to provide the children with a meaningful, fun, educational day.

Our plan to address the teacher shortage is to invest as much as we can in our teachers and support staff. Advocating for greater funding and investment in early education and out-of-school programs is something I am passionate about. We have to continue to educate legislators on the importance of these programs, how they benefit communities, how investing in our children is truly an investment in the future.

Self portraits by MUSA students hang on a bulletin board.
Artwork made by graduates at Maple Unified Student Academy (MUSA) is displayed on a wall at the school in Homestead. Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: For teachers just coming into the field of early education, what do you think is something important they should know?

Charmello: The value of mentoring. I love to teach and mentor future teachers. Just as I had opportunities to learn from my mentors, I look to improve young children’s learning by mentoring and guiding the next generation of teachers. 

NEXTpittsburgh: Where does that start?

Charmello: You have to keep learning, and it’s the situation that is going to really teach you. I can teach you pedagogy. I can teach you different ways to teach. What I can’t teach a person is that inherent joy and caring and compassion necessary to work with children. That innate ability to connect with children to understand — at least to some extent — how they’re feeling and relate to them on their level.

For example, let’s self-reflect. Let’s look at what we’re doing with children. Did it work? Did it not work? What can we do differently? What can we do better? How can a teacher learn from the situation? Self-reflection is part of mentoring, too. 

Students at (MUSA) Maple Unified Student Academy in Homestead practice dance moves
Students at Maple Unified Student Academy (MUSA) in Homestead practice dance moves before a “pep rally.” Photo by John Beale.

NEXTpittsburgh: You’ve been in the early education field for more than 30 years now. What positive changes have you seen recently?

Charmello: I see more people having a greater understanding of how young children learn. More people are understanding that just because a child is 2 or 3 and may not be in a formal classroom environment, the child is learning constantly. You can read to an infant. They’re never too young to be read to, never too young to have art experiences.

People are also starting to pay more attention to the social and emotional development of young children. I’m seeing a lot more curriculum focused on that development.

NEXTpittsburgh: What’s driving that?

Charmello: We’re finding that children are having a hard time regulating their emotions. They’re having a hard time verbalizing how they feel. So, teaching has to focus not only on academics but on a child’s social-emotional development and how important it is in the future success of the child.

A child can learn a lot of cognitive information, but if they can’t interact with someone, if they can’t problem-solve, if they struggle to have their voice heard, how successful can they be as adults? That is the social-emotional piece, and more people are realizing how vital it is.

We know what works. We know that children learn best through experience and hands-on by being actively engaged. We need to see more providers able to reach more children.

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.