Do Early Educators Need College Degrees? (with Stephanie Curenton)

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Gloria kicks off the show by unpacking the numerous abortion rights and child care wins coming out of the midterm elections. Then, she chats with Stephanie Curenton, associate professor at Boston University and the director of their Center for the Ecology of Early Childhood Development. Stephanie talks about her research on the social, cognitive, and language development of low-income and minority children and the work she’s doing to create an anti-bias, anti-racist curriculum rubric for early education centers. Plus, Gloria and Stephanie get into whether or not they think early childhood educators should be required to get an advanced degree.

This podcast is presented by Neighborhood Villages and brought to you with generous support from Imaginable FuturesCare For All Children by the David and Laura Merage Foundation, and Spring Point Partners.

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Gloria Riviera, Stephanie Curenton

Gloria Riviera  00:10

Okay, well, here we are. We just started a meeting with a check in and I am going to do the same thing here. How are we all doing? Are we all okay? I am feeling okay. Cautiously optimistic would even be applicable here? Why am I feeling cautiously optimistic? Well, because to tell you the truth, I was prepared for a tsunami of opposition to abortion rights. And instead if the midterm elections showed us anything, it’s that across this country, abortion rights have not faded from voters’ minds. abortion rights are front and center. Add to that in a very close second place in at least New Mexico is childcare. What we can tell you as we record this Wednesday, late morning on the East Coast is this. There was no red wave, there were red gains, and there were blue gains more blue gains and generally predicted Okay, there is the first sigh of relief, at least for me, but then get this. Remember, we were thinking about California, Vermont and Michigan, all three of those states amended their constitutions to include reproductive rights affirming abortion rights. Amen. Hallelujah. In Kentucky, voters said no to a ballot measure, no, that would have denied constitutional protections for abortion. That is a victory for abortion rights in a very deeply red state. And in Montana, as of this recording, it is too close to call. But it’s looking likely that voters will have said no to a law that would make all fetuses quote born alive, legal people with the right to medical care. And in New Mexico, money, money, money, right? childcare and early education needs money. And in New Mexico people, they will have it over $100 million dollars annually, we’ll go to this effort that has a ton of financial support towards a social safety net. We all need. Thank you to the voters in New Mexico, for showing us all it can be done. Speaking about what can be done. Our guest today is Dr. Stephanie Curenton. She is an associate professor at Boston University, Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, and the director of the Center for the ecology of early childhood development SEED. She is teaching the next generation of early educators we will all rely on. She looks at the social, cognitive and language development of low income and minority children. Okay, those are the ones who arguably need her smarts and attention the most. She’s going to talk to me about creating an anti-bias and anti-racist curriculum in early education settings. She also tells me this really beautiful story of her own days in childcare. Yes, that is right, Stephanie says she can remember all the way back to when she was just three years old. This woman is incredible. You’re about to hear for yourself. Alright, here’s my conversation with Dr. Stephanie Curenton.

Gloria Riviera  03:24

Dr. Curenton, I’m so happy to have you with us today. And I want to start with what brought you to this work initially, why you are drawn to study the cognitive and social development of low income and minority children. What brought you to it?

Stephanie Curenton  03:41

I think what brought me to this work is that I was always interested in psychology in general. And I also was always interested in childhood as a developmental phase. And being a developmental psychologist allowed me to combine these two things. And when it was time for me, in my graduate program to really think about my area of specialty, and expertise, I gravitated to low income racially marginalized children because of my own lived experience. And because it represents a population of children that I’m deeply committed to, hopefully humbly, being able to be the voice of and bring their experiences and to the table.

Gloria Riviera  04:28

Did you find yourself gravitating towards any kind of experience in school that had to do with young children? I don’t even know what that would look like in school. But how did it resonate with you when you found yourself interacting with young children?

Stephanie Curenton  04:42

So I was definitely drawn to language and literacy. I am a very much interested in language and literacy development, especially during the young ages. I love nothing more than reading stories to children and having conversations with them and hearing their stories. So when I was in graduate school, my work really combined, the early years of my work really combined the areas of sort of social cognition, and children’s language skills. And so we were looking at how children tell stories, and how they learn to take the characters perspective. And that storytelling. So how they learn to talk about, you know, the thoughts and the feelings of you know, a character. So that’s how I started out my work, my research work. And then it’s just moved and sort of meandered into a lot of different things. And so now, a lot of my work is really around early childhood policy issues, as it relates to access and quality of early childhood care and education.

Gloria Riviera  05:47

Hearing you talk about how young children tell stories, right? And I’m thinking of how they draw stories and how they identify with characters. And it rang a bell for me when I was researching your work, because you developed something called assessing classroom socio cultural equity scale. So my question when I looked at that, because you’ve done a whole host of research and development for early educators in the classroom, can you just tell me, how do educators measure socio cultural interactions? How do they measure that?

Stephanie Curenton  06:24

Yeah, so great. So this is, you’re talking about some of my current work around the we call it the access measure for short. And it is a classroom quality measure that is really designed to provide a lens into the classroom experiences of racially marginalized children. And, you know, when you ask the question, how do educators measure that, this tool, that access tool is one of the few tools that are out there that can really help the field, measure these things. So it was something that really helped us define and operationalize what racial equity looks like in the early childhood space. And, you know, the tool measures things such as the level of quality conversation in the classroom, the quality of that conversation, the back and forth exchanges, as well as what the topics are. So, how the teacher might be engaging in classroom discourse as it relates to issues related to social justice, and equity. It also looks at whether or not all children have true access to participate in the instructional activities. What I mean is specifically, racially looking at whether or not racially marginalized children actually can are asked questions. And if they’re asked like sort of the same level of deep open ended questions, and if the teacher is demonstrating genuine connection and interest in what they’re saying and what they’re thinking.

Gloria Riviera  07:53

Given we’ve talked to teachers in high school who have successfully reversed a book ban that would have taken books like I am Malala, […] Rosa Parks out of the classroom, they were able to reverse that the all-white Governing Board of this public school said okay, what right that was that was incorrect. We’re gonna allow these books, I’m connecting it to your work, because I feel like what you’re doing inside the classroom is preparing these students to enter the public school with expectations, that that actually are under threat right now. Right? This was one high school that implemented this ban on books, what is your goal for this work at this level, at this young early education level?

Stephanie Curenton  08:36

So my goal is for children to have the expectation that they are strong, competent learners, and that they enjoy school, and that they enjoy interacting with their peers and their teachers and a learning space. That is my goal. That is what I want. And my intention is to help our early childhood education workforce, be able to provide those experiences that will help children have that goal, have that understanding about themselves and have that feeling about themselves. So that’s what the goal is, is for children to enter into later school years with a sense of wholeness with the sense of I can do this, I belong in this educational space. And the way in which we achieve that long term sort of child outcome is by working with our early childhood workforce, and investing in our workforce in a way to help them understand these are the things that children need in order to help prepare them for that transition and to help make sure that they are whole when they leave your classroom. And I can say for myself, the reason why I was particularly drawn to this developmental age period, is because I personally remember so much with from the time I was three and four years old, it’s kind of, it’s odd. It’s strange that most people don’t remember, as much as I remember.

Gloria Riviera  10:09

I want to hear everything.

Stephanie Curenton  10:10

Yeah, I just remember so much. And it was a very, sort of, like, critical time for me. And I also during those time periods, I also went to the Headstart program, and that it was just a wonderful, wonderful, fun, happy experience for me as an individual child. And I really did feel like I left that experience of headstart feeling whole.

Gloria Riviera  10:39

Can you just tell our listeners, let’s just pause for a moment. What is Headstart to you? What does it mean to you?

Stephanie Curenton  10:45

So Headstart is, it’s our only federal early childhood education program. And it serves children from birth, and even some prenatal mother’s it. But so prenatal mother’s all the way up to the age children of five. And, and it serves them in different contexts in center based on context, as well as home base context as well. And it has been around since the 60s.

Gloria Riviera  11:16

So you had a headstart experience as a very young child, and it made you feel whole. So that stayed with you. Well, let me ask you this, then, what are the characteristics? I guess I should ask of high quality early education to you how do you understand that today?

Stephanie Curenton  11:32

Yeah, so I think that’s a really great question. And I’m going to take the creative space to answer it from my, my little four year old three and four year old Headstart point of view, right to tell you what made that a positive experience for me. So one is that my Headstart program was community based. So it was in my local community, I grew up in a small town, it was in my local community, there were other children there from my community that I knew some of the teachers were from my community. And there were teachers who looked like me. So there were African-American teachers who were teaching in this program, there were African-American administrators who were running the program. And so having that experience of being able to see people who were like me, in my first educational space was powerful. And I also remember, the educational space in and of itself, in the sense that there were so many things that we had in our URL in that classroom that I didn’t have at home, right, there were these different blocks. And you know, there were so many dolls and a dramatic play area, and all the furniture was situated for my little body. It was like, it was just sort of like a magical space for me, and my little three year old and four year old mind, I really felt like, this space is made for me. And we could explore I remember, you know, all the times, and we had activities, and we could explore what we were doing. So I told you, I remember a lot from this time. Yeah, I know, like a little weird. I know. But I remember playing in the block area. I remember sitting at the table and having snacks, even snacks that were different to me that I would never have at home, I remember having the celery with the peanut butter in it. And then because this was back in the 70s, or we could get peanut butter. And you know, I remember the first time like that was sat in front of me, and I’m like, what is that? But then, you know, I tasted it. And it was so different. And it was again, just exposing me to a whole different experience, to all these new experiences. And I also remember something that was very fun for me, is the one teacher I had in my second year when I was a four year old at Headstart was a black teacher. I can’t remember her name now, but she was a teacher for my community. And she used to have us do these little games where it’s like, we would have rug time. And we would do all these games, these dances, etc. And I just I just remember it so fondly in terms of just having fun and just feeling free. And it was a place that while it was still immersed in my community, right? It was still a place that was like for me, I felt independent. Because, you know, my family walked me there. They dropped me off. And then I was in my own little world, my own little space, you know, with my friends and I just like I said, I loved it. I felt whole. As a matter of fact, the slogan that my Headstart program had back in the 70s. When I was there, we had a slogan that said, I know I’m somebody because God don’t make no junk.

Gloria Riviera  15:05

What is your understanding as a developmental psychologist of who gets to define what high quality is today? For this, like wide swath of diverse students across the country?

Stephanie Curenton  15:20

Yeah, so most of our science is created by and controlled by White scientist. And so, you know, the body of the scientists are the people who get to determine what high quality is, who gets to determine what the educational experiences should be, like, who those who have the strongest voice at the table, those who have the most connections, etc. So yeah, so that’s who’s defining us it’s this, you know, it’s, it’s a lot of the old guard, you know, in terms of who scientists are, but things are changing.

Gloria Riviera  15:57

I want to ask you, you know, as you teach, you’re really teaching the future generation of educators, that’s who we are talking about who will be in the classroom with our children. And how do you feel about the industry now? You know, we don’t pay our teachers what they will anything close to what they would need to earn to pay back their tuition. You know, how do you reckon with that, like, do you have any conversations with your students about that?

Stephanie Curenton  16:27

I reckon with it in the sense that it is the thing that makes me the most mad, you know, I love the early childhood field, I love our educators I Love You know, I love the way in which we teach in terms of looking at learners and from a holistic standpoint, but it is so disheartening to know and understand how our educators are paid, right. And I wish we had our policy level, even down, you know, in terms of like, even the education level, I wish that we could all really band together and enforce society to see how valuable we are as a workforce. I thought that this was going to happen during COVID. Because there was so much that happened during COVID, where it was like so many childcare centers were set down. And society for the first time was ever was really able to see how valuable this industry was. And then I thought to myself, I said, Surely, surely this is it, this is what is going to change things. This is what is going to make society see how valuable we are. But for some reason that didn’t happen. It didn’t result in sort of a society reexamining to say, Hey, this is a very valuable industry and sector of our workforce, how do we invest in them more, and at this point, I am just at a loss because I’m like, I don’t know, what it is that we can do to make society see how critically important it is. And we alone when I’m sure there are other I don’t know every other country. But I do know that there are countries that don’t have this problem. And the example I would say is France. So France has done a really good job educating their population about how these early how critical and early these education years are. And they have early childhood educators who are paid at the same level and seen as the with the same level of esteem and respect is anyone from their K through 12, and college system. And I would love for us to be there. Because I do think one of my friends who’s not an early childhood person said to me once she was talking about her child’s education, and she said something, she was talking about the teacher and she said, You know, it’s not it’s not rocket science, you know what this teacher was upset with the teacher. And so she’s, you know, going on, and she was like, it’s not like this person is doing like rocket science. And I said to her, actually, it is kind of like rocket science. And I was like, let me break it down to you. I was like, let me break down to you all the knowledge that you have to have all of the skill set that you have to have in order to really command a classroom of young learners and the level of creativity. And so I just think that we need to find a way in our field to help society understand that, that we are rocket scientists in some way like we are providing a level of knowledge that most of our population does not have. I tell early to my students and other early childhood members that I talk with all the time; I tell them that I put early childhood people only second to pediatricians in terms of knowledge of the early years.

Gloria Riviera  19:50

Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I would guess, I mean, everybody that we’ve spoken to, who is an early educator, tells these stories of how they came to nurse their passion, right, they are enthusiastic about what they learned when they were in college and their advanced degrees and then that is juxtaposed with this desperation once they find themselves in the field, and facing the realities of what they’re earning, you know, I’m sure in some areas, it also translates into a feeling of being undervalued. But so far, I think it’s not undervalued that I’ve noticed, when I speak to these really educators, it’s just unseen. Like they feel no one is paying attention. And yet, you know, I sort of it’s, you know, I hit my head against a brick wall, because we have all the data, we know how important it is. And yet we don’t do it. So I that’s another reason why I’m so grateful for your, your care and your attention to this. And, you know, we talked to one organization in Boston, and they were so fraught with staff shortages, that they were actually talking about, maybe we need to look at the local high school and somehow partner with students in high school to come in, you know, because they had like, the person who usually worked the front desk was in the classroom. I mean, it’s just whack a mole every single day is a bachelor degree, first of all required to teach and just how desperate is the hiring landscape for early educators right now?

Stephanie Curenton  21:34

Yeah, so I think that there’s like two things going on in that question. So one is the age old question that we’ve been talking about for several decades, in the early childhood field in terms of like, what is the level of degree slash level of professionalism that early childhood educators need? Right. And then the other one is sort of just the shortage and like, how do we deal with you know, the shortage? I would say this whole argument around, do we need a bachelor’s degree, do we not need a bachelor’s degree or does something less suffice is really rooted in the good intention of the idea of that we need to professionalize the workforce, so that there’s some who believe that if we professionalize the workforce, meaning give them a bachelor’s degree or require a bachelor’s degree, then that is then going to command the level of respect that we want our early childhood educators to have, right? So that’s kind of how that line of thinking comes out. However, the problem there, the problem was doing that still puts us in the same social situation, that just because you have a bachelor’s degree, does not make it is not profitable for you. It’s not it’s not economically sustaining is what I should say, for you and your family. So you might have a higher degree. And so therefore, you can say, well, I’m a professional, but if you’re not paid that professional wage, then that is not really helping our educators. I think the other thing, though, that we still need to think about and work through as a field is what really understanding what it takes to be a good early childhood educator. And it’s not we know from research, that it’s not just a degree, it’s not as though a degree all of a sudden makes you magic. And like the best early childhood educator out there, there are other ways of knowing ways of being. And I think that we do need to think about pathways of education and pathways of training that allow for the wide range of educational experiences, and educational training within our system to be valued and to be rewarded along the same sort of like, you know, professional development ladder. So if we were to start with high school students, which I agree with, I agree with love the idea. There had been some states who have been talking about this for a while, you know, even when I was younger, I think that that can be a great entry point for folks to get into the field, people who love it to come into the field to get training, etc. But what we want to make sure that we’re still doing is that if we get these young people into the field, right? We want to make sure that there’s an opportunity for them to continue to advance their wages in the field as time goes on. So if they are in the field, and they’re getting an associate’s degree, once they earn that degree, we should see an advance and in earnings when people see when people receive their CDA, they should we should see an advance in earnings. If we do get folks who get a bachelor’s degree, they should see an advance in earnings. So I think that we, it just comes back down to that fundamental thing is that one, there’s no magic trick. Really. So I think the important thing for us to do is maybe an instead of us continuing to put so much of our energy around this either or framework of this argument like BA degree or not BA degree, what we need to do is put our energy around creating an argument around, how can we make sure that we are talking about advance wages and advanced degree at the same time? That should be our message. That’s our message. That’s our talking point.

Gloria Riviera  25:29

Right. So even though this is like a very humbling moment as a journalist, because I asked the wrong question, right. Basically, I was asking, like, what do you think about looking at high school for people to come into the classroom? And that’s not really the right question. The right question is, how do we form an argument to fairly pay wages in the early education space, right? Like, it’s like, forget about looking at high school like God willing, we will never have to do that, because we will figure out this larger problem first. So thank you for that. I do want to ask you about the impact here, and particularly your work around Black Parent Voices, and looking at the policy recommendations that you think are the right ones to work for and to promote? So I’ll ask you that first, can you talk to us about your work around black Parent Voices?

Stephanie Curenton  26:46

Yeah, so that’s another space in which having a team of scholars like a community of scholars of color to help push that work forward has been like really instrumental and where it’s just another example of a sort of like working together around causes that we’re interested in. And I would say that, that work was very instrumental for several wheat reasons, we were one of the first groups to really come out and to provide information, and a portrait of how Black families were faring during COVID. And so it was really, really great to be able to share that information with the world, so that we could, so that society could think about how do we best support, you know, and help families. I think that there’s more to come like that partnership, that Black Parent Voices report came out of a partnership that we have with some colleagues at the University, or Stanford University. So some of the findings were that, of course, there was a lot of stress. And there was a lot of racial stress and like racial tension that families were feeling as a result of COVID. So people were experiencing more racial attacks. We also know from there that it was, of course, extremely hard financial hardship for Black families. So all Black families were hit. During that time, from the low income all the way up to the higher income. It’s just a, it’s just a manner of how folks were able to bounce back and sort of work with that. What the other thing that was difficult was that it was difficult for families, but they showed it a sense of strength is that family members were coming together to help provide care for young children in the face of the pandemic, because we had childcare programs that were closing. But we had a lot of Black families who were engaged in the workforce around that were essential workers during that time period. And so they had extended family members who were pitching it to take care of young children in the absence of childcare, which was a really, really great sort of social capital, you know, positive asset that the families were able to draw on in order to, to survive.

Gloria Riviera  29:09

What I hear you talking about really is community stepping up, which was necessitated and beautiful and reminds me of what you mentioned, when you talk about your early experience with Headstart, right? It was in your community, your teachers looked at you your peers looks like you. I’m grappling with this idea of community because it all sounds amazing. We all rely on community, we need community, there are many positive things that can come from incorporating community into the early education experience, but it’s not. It’s not going to solve everything, right. The child doesn’t take the entire community, the community they came to save that child during COVID into the classroom. And I guess the question is, you know, what are the systems and programs in place inside the classroom? To support, you know, children of lower socio economic means, Black and Brown children, you know, on and on and on the list goes on. What are the programs in place now? And what do you hope to change about them?

Stephanie Curenton  30:12

Yeah. So I think what you’re trying to ask me is sort of like, what are the what’s the societal obligation? So society can’t get off on saying, Well, hey, call your mom to help you. Or don’t you have an auntie, I think, you know, I think Elizabeth Warren talks about this when she tells her story about her own self, when she was a young woman having her first child, and she talks about how she had to call them on, she talked about on stage and one of the debates, how she had to call an aunt to come and stay with her. And she’s saying, everybody doesn’t have an aunt for number one, and then we shouldn’t have to rely, you know, like on our aunties, and on our moms to come, like, you know, and save us in that way, we should have a society that is supporting us as families, and like, what are the supports that that would need, that we would need is that we should have a society that is supporting families in a way of supporting us in terms of providing us with the financial, I think medical, and educational support that we need, as families caring for children, all throughout the developmental phase. So especially, you know, it’s critical to have those, those supports in the early years, when families, you know, young families are just learning how to do this, they’re just trying to figure this out. It’s critical that there are supports in society that ensure that there is a standard that is assessable. To everyone. Right, that that is society’s, you know, like obligation is to make sure that there’s a standard of care that’s accessible to everyone. And that that standard of care actually meets the needs of families, meaning that there actually needs to be it actually needs to be responsive to what we know families are going through, and the supports, you know, that they need. And I think that if society were doing its job in that way, then people would not be so stressed. And it would actually make our communities stronger, and our extended family networks even stronger, because what’s happening now is that because we don’t have sort of that minimum standard, you know, provided by society that sort of helping us all be able to function, because we don’t have that our support systems, our community support system, our family support systems are so overly stressed, that they’re not even able to support us in a productive, you know, sort of healthy kind of way. So I think that this just goes back to society has an obligation, it’s like one of the goals of society is to take care of its people.

Gloria Riviera  32:56

And it’s important that your work focuses on who that child is how that child feels whole. So that that whole child who has had an environment with anti-bias teaching and with equity with all the great, amazing exposures that are possible, to then take with them into the public school system, you know, take forward with them into life really, it’s shaping them for the rest of their lives. So I mean, thank you so much, Dr. Keratin, for your passion in this space for what I can tell is very hard, devoted work. In educating our future educators, I mean, you’re devoting yourself to all children in the work that you do. So thank you so much for your work. And thank you so much for coming on this show.

Stephanie Curenton  33:47

Thank you. I enjoyed meeting you.

Gloria Riviera  33:56

Thank you again to Stephanie. I am so grateful as I always am to speak to people so deeply entrenched in the work of making childcare and early education, what it needs to be what it will be one day in this country. All right, you know what time it is, this is my favorite part of every week, a chance to hear from you or no one is coming to save us community. I asked you, in light of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the high cost and inaccessibility of child care in this country. Would you want or would you want someone you care about to become pregnant in the next year? Why or why not? Here’s what you had to say this week.

Speaker 3  34:36

So to answer your question, I do not want either of my daughters. I have two adult daughters, who are of childbearing age to get pregnant in the next year. My oldest has children and because of being separated and in the process of getting divorced, went back to work. I see how she has to piecemeal, the childcare that she has currently, because her children range from 15 to three. So trying to get her two oldest daughters to school, to and from school every day. And then her four and three year old childcare, while she’s working, is a jigsaw puzzle. And then to add another infant on top of that would be a nightmare. So, yes, and as I thought about your question, and my own childcare, when my girls were younger, I too, had to somewhat piecemeal it together. And I never thought about it until you raised the question. I realize how hard it is for certain families, and most families to care for their children and ensure that they are safe. When they’re at work.

Gloria Riviera  36:10

Piecemeal. Why is anyone doing that a jigsaw puzzle, we are talking about a simple idea here, enabling a parent to work while ensuring their child or children are safe while they are at work. Why is that so difficult for this country when so many other countries are getting it right? Why does this feel like an insurmountable rabbit hole of hell, I get so angry and infuriated when I hear week after week, these stories of despair when it comes to taking care of our children. So that we, as parents and caregivers, and mothers of adult women can stay sane, and contribute to the world we live in. It seems like a simple task; I want to say thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for making me feel angry on your behalf on your daughter’s behalf. You said you quote never really thought about it in this context. And the fact that you now you are thinking about it in this context. That is one of the main points of this podcast. Thank you. We all need to think about this together. All right, I want to hear from you. In light of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the high cost and inaccessibility of child care in this country. Would you want or would you want someone you care about to become pregnant in the next year? Why or why not? To share your thoughts with me just pull out your phone, record a voice memo and email it to me at It is that easy. And one more thing. If you want even more of no one is coming to save us. Make sure you’re subscribed to lemon on a premium on Apple podcasts. All right, that is it for this week. Thank you guys as always so much for listening. I am so grateful for each and every one of you and I will be back with you here next week.

CREDITS  38:18

NO ONE IS COMING TO SAVE US is a Lemonada Media original presented by and created with Neighborhood Villages. The show is produced by Kryssy Pease and Alex McOwen. Veronica Rodriguez is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, and me Gloria Riviera. If you like the show, and you believe what we’re doing is important. Please help others find us by leaving us a rating and writing us a review. Do you have your own experiences and frustrations with the childcare system? Do you have ideas for what we could do to make it better? Join the No One Is Coming To Save Us Facebook group where we can continue the conversation together. You can also follow us and other Lemonada podcasts at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. Thank you so much for listening. We will be back next week. Until then hang in there. You can do it.

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