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County Department of Children Initiatives director is prioritizing stability in child care

In this Sept. 16, 2021, file photo Pre-K teacher Vera Csizmadia teaches 3-and 4-year-old students in her classroom at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center in Palisades Park, N.J.
Mary Altaffer
In this Sept. 16, 2021, file photo Pre-K teacher Vera Csizmadia teaches 3-and 4-year-old students in her classroom at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center in Palisades Park, N.J.

On today’s episode of The Confluence: The first director of Allegheny County’s Department of Children Initiatives, Rebecca Mercatoris, lays out her vision for the department; the North Allegheny School District board has voted to make mask-wearing optional, but the decision could be overruled by the state Supreme Court; and author Yaa Gyasi discusses about her second book, “Transcendent Kingdom,” which is included as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Ten Evenings Series.

Director of the new County Department of Children Initiatives’ says staffing is a big problem

(0:00 - 10:31)

Allegheny County Council just approved Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s proposed operating budget for 2022. It includes nearly a million dollars for the Department of Children Initiatives (DCI).

Back in May, Fitzgerald named Rebecca Mercatoris as director of that department, which is just getting off the ground.

“Our focus is very much on promoting equitable access to high quality early care and education and out of school time services for all children and youth in Allegheny County,” says Mercatoris.

Mercatoris says her department is working to understand what is getting in between services and families.

“We do know that in some communities, the after-school programs have really come back, along with the in-school opportunities for children,” says Mercatoris. “In other communities, those programs are not able to serve the number of children that they were serving pre-COVID, or had always had a long and large waiting list.”

She says many programs have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to acquiring enough staff to support children.

“One of our first spaces is being able to understand and quantify that gap of staffing, and be able to support programs in addressing bringing some of that workforce in,” says Mercatoris. “Thinking about how DCI is connecting with the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services to really ensure that any supports and additional efforts that are offered by DCI fit nicely into existing supports.”

North Allegheny School District has made mask-wearing optional, but a court decision may change that

(10:32 - 15:12)

Tomorrow, the state Supreme Court will evaluate the legality of a statewide school mask mandate which is set to expire Jan. 17. But school board politics have already been shaken by culture wars and the coronavirus.

90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider takes us to one community that wrestled with masking mandates for months, and could take up the controversial issue again.

Yaa Gyasi explores religion, science, and the questions they answer in her book, ‘Transcendent Kingdom’

(15:14 - 22:30)

In author Yaa Gyasi’s novel “Transcendent Kingdom,” the main character, Gifty, is looking to her research at Stanford University to help answer questions of addiction and reward seeking behavior, issues that touched her family growing up after her older brother Nana overdosed.

“Like Gifty, I grew up in the church, so I knew that I wanted to write a book that grappled with the church in a way that I had not seen in fiction,” says Gyasi.

In this intersection of scientific research and intimate care, we are taken through Gifty’s life and her experiences with religion, racism, death, and academia.

“I think there’s actually a kind of continuity between Gifty as an incredibly religious child and Gifty as a scientist,” says Gyasi. “We often hear these conversations that pit religion and science against one another but in Gifty they are kind of existing on a continuum. She uses religion when she’s a child as a way to ask these really large questions about what it means to be human, why we’re here.”

“Transcendent Kingdom” is Gyasi’s first time writing a novel in first person, which she says presented its own set of challenges.

“I think the experience is an incredibly intimate one, because in first person, you really have to delve as deeply as you can into the mind and the motivations of a single character,” says Gyasi.

Gyasi spoke virtually at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Ten Evenings series Monday, December 6.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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