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Why This L.A. Teacher is Passionate About Alternative Approaches to Early Education

L.A. educator and PBS Early Learning Champion Charisse Sims works with children
Charisse Sims working with children. | PBS SoCal
Charisse Sims knew she wanted to be in education from the start. As an adult, the L.A. educator and PBS KIDS Early Learning Champion who founded a preschool focused on anti-racism now runs a literacy program and works with parents who want to get the skills to teach their kids at home.
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"I always wanted to be in education," says Charisse Sims, an early education specialist and parent coach based in Los Angeles. "I grew up with a single mom who worked most of the day; I didn't get to see her often, but when I was just 6 months old, I was put into Yasmin Thobani's daycare." Sims says, "She was always a safe space for me, and in high school, when we lost our housing, she even took me in. Yasmin was my mental imprint of safety."

Recently named one of 11 PBS KIDS Early Learning Champions, Sims explained shared how this and her high school experience helped lay the foundation for her career goals.

Charisse Sims introduces herself and her work.
PBS SoCal Early Learning Champion Charisse Sims

"Our high school had a teen parenting center, and I started working there for elective credit; that's where I met Marilyn McGrath, a professor in child development. She became another safe space of mine."

These formative experiences fueled Sims' approach and passion for early learning. Her philosophy on early education is simple: to educate the whole child. Instead of simply focusing on memorization of facts and symbols, Sims believes children should learn the significance of their emotions as well.

L.A. educator and PBS Early Learning Champion Charisse Sims works with children
"I always wanted to be in education," says Charisse Sims. | PBS SoCal

"I believe in nurturing the whole child. My goal is to not just create super smart kids, but for them to recognize what their needs are, to communicate their needs." Sims adds, "In my handbook, I believe all children are seeds; give them the right amount of water, sunlight, and you don't have to teach children to be anything, you just have to give them what they need to grow."

In my handbook, I believe all children are seeds; give them the right amount of water, sunlight, and you don't have to teach children to be anything, you just have to give them what they need to grow.

A native Angeleno, Sims grew up in Santa Monica, where she attended Santa Monica College and eventually transferred to Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she studied child development and behavioral science. She now resides in Inglewood with her husband and six children near her preschool, Hidden Gems.

L.A. educator and PBS Early Learning Champion Charisse Sims works with children
"I believe in nurturing the whole child," says Charisse Sims. | PBS SoCal

"When my oldest started preschool, I noticed the difference in demographics in the different schools, especially the ones that mainly focused on the wealthy." She explains, "When I moved, there was not the same amount of access, particularly when it came to professional development, so I opened Hidden Gems, where people of color could afford a diverse education for their children."

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Sims was forced to close Hidden Gems.

"We kept it open until August 2020, but not being able to hug and make connections was heartbreaking for me," she says. "It was hard to keep up with the guidelines that kept changing every night at midnight, and I have six children of my own, who I didn't want to make the sacrificial lambs."

Fortunately for Sims, her family and her community, a rebirth is happening at Hidden Gems. The site is now the venue for her husband's nonprofit poetry library and literacy program, the Sims Library of Poetry. Each month, children go home with books, using the library with her same philosophies of nurturing the whole child.

Small child who is a student of L.A. educator and PBS Early Learning Champion Charisse Sims
A small child draws while under the care of Charisse Sims. | PBS SoCal

The library's "Book a Movie Night" program challenges the group to read a book together, meet on Zoom weekly to discuss and watch the movie version of the book at the end of the month. Sims says, "Half of the time they are reading about real people, and you get to see children who didn't like reading, staying up until 10:00 p.m. because they say, 'This book is so good!' and are truly motivated, because there's a group of them reading together."

I always wanted to be in education.

PBS KIDS Early Learning Champions are talented educators who exude passion, are enthusiastic for their work and are active members of their early education community. Once someone is named an Early Learning Champion, they are always a member, and are celebrated at an awards banquet, gain access to professional learning opportunities, and can share their ideas with thousands of like-minded educators on local and national platforms.

Sims says she is excited for the opportunity, and when asked how she discovered the program, says, "I thought, how come there are no awards for preschool teachers? So I looked it up, and it was the only award I found like it. Then, Suzie Hicks, 'The Climate Chick,' a volunteer for my preschool program, told me about it, and I looked more into it then."

In addition to the new literacy program, Sims now works more closely with parents, giving them skills they crave.

"During the pandemic, many parents became teacher's assistants," she says. "When I post things on social media, I have a lot of parents reaching out to me, and because of that, I'm now working with other educators for professional development opportunities."

As for future goals, Sims has high aspirations for her library. "Have you ever been to the Huntington Library?" she asks me. "Well, that's what I want for our library, a place for people to live and grow."

L.A. educator and PBS Early Learning Champion Charisse Sims works with children
Charisse Sims works with children. | PBS SoCal

Sims would like to reopen a preschool center, maybe in a few years, and is also considering helping those interested in opening their own schools to figure out how to best make a positive impact. There's a lot to consider, including how to collect tuition, remedy difficult situations with parents, how to bring the outdoors indoors, and much more, but Sims is prepared for the challenge.

"The first five years of a child's life are the most important," she says. "It's where we develop the foundation for what our world looks like; then, the rest of your life is just confirming or denying what that world is."

As for herself, Sims says she hates to use this phrase, but it's nonetheless true: "I want to be the Oprah of early education. I love to help people heal and grow, and since I started my social media page, I've had a large audience to help."

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