Early ed champion stepping down from Growing Up New Mexico

December 30, 2022, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Written by Margaret O’Hara


In the small but expanding world of New Mexico early childhood education, Katherine Freeman, longtime president and CEO of Growing Up New Mexico, is known as an intermediary with the right connections, good intentions and dogged determination.

She’s worked with child care providers, business leaders, lawmakers, legislative staff members and others, combining varying perspectives and finding common interest to expand access to high-quality child care in the state, said former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who worked closely with Freeman and Growing Up New Mexico during her time in office.

“She has been a broker of various interests,” Denish said of Freeman. “I think that that is the role that Growing Up New Mexico and the policy arm of United Way of Santa Fe County has played.”

This spring, Freeman’s time as a center figure in early childhood education is coming to an end. After the 2023 legislative session, she will retire from her position as Growing Up New Mexico’s president and CEO. Kate Noble, the organization’s vice president for policy and stakeholder engagement, will be her successor.

Freeman’s history as one of New Mexico’s early childhood education leaders began about two decades ago. After a career in health care and behavioral health as a licensed independent social worker, Freeman took over as president and CEO of Growing Up New Mexico — then known as the United Way of Santa Fe County — in 2003.

Under the banner of United Way, the organization largely contributed funds to various other organizations, without the specific early childhood education focus, Freeman said. Shortly after her appointment as CEO, though, Freeman and Stacy Quinn, then-chairwoman of the board and current board member emeritus at Growing Up New Mexico, decided the organization would take an alternate approach: Rather than spreading funds across many nonprofits, then-United Way would dedicate all of its resources to early childhood efforts for children ages 5 and under.

“We didn’t really want to be a charity anymore; we wanted to be a change agent,” Freeman said. “We wanted to invest money in community change that would have long-term impact and would really be meaningful on an issue.”

Although the organization’s name didn’t officially change until 2021, Quinn said Freeman has been doggedly focused on that singular mission ever since.

“She just truly, truly loves the kids of Santa Fe and wants all children to have the best life they can have. That’s what got her up in the morning. That’s what motivated her. We never lost sight of that. She was mission driven, but in the best possible way,” Quinn said.

Freeman started to construct supports — building “brick by brick” — for early childhood education in Santa Fe and then across New Mexico.

It began with one prekindergarten classroom at Agua Fría Elementary School, after the organization requested federal grant funds for early childhood infrastructure. Then, the single pre-K classroom expanded to two. Then, the organization hired someone to run a small home-visiting program for new parents. Then, it added a community outreach program.

Around 2009, Growing Up New Mexico entered the policy world, supporting additional government resources for early childhood education. There, Freeman saw her organization’s role as a nexus between early childhood care providers and lawmakers.

“We’ve always viewed our policy role not so much as an advocate [but] as a broker, between all of the parties involved, to broker where we have agreement and we can move issues forward,” Freeman said.

The organization backed the Early Childhood Education and Care Act, which established the state’s Early Learning Advisory Council to maintain the quality and accessibility of early childhood care providers; and the Home Visiting Accountability Act, which created consistent standards for home-visiting programs to ensure quality care for families.

In 2015, Growing Up New Mexico transported a gaggle of 4-year-old students from its pre-K classrooms to the state Capitol, holding class for the day in the Roundhouse in support of the passage of the Pre-K Act.

Today, Growing Up New Mexico offers pre-K and child care for children ages 3 to 5 at the Early Learning Center at Kaune, as well as perinatal home-visiting programs, multigenerational family support and more, in addition to its legislative advocacy work

To Freeman, the programs ensure families feel supported as they raise children in New Mexico.

“It does take a village, and a lot of people don’t have a village. So we make a village,” she said.

Noble joined Freeman’s village in 2018, when she was contracted to travel the state, interviewing early childhood education providers. The work was invigorating, Noble said. It combined her previous career experiences to help her focus on “the best subject matter”: early childhood education

“I got bit by that particular bug hard,” Noble said.

Noble, who also serves as president of the Santa Fe school board, said she’s been careful to avoid the possibility or perception of a conflict of interest throughout her tenure at Growing Up New Mexico and on the school board. Aside from recusing herself from a vote related to Growing Up New Mexico’s now-concluded lease at a Santa Fe Public Schools building, Noble said the two roles have not regularly collided.

Rather, Noble sees her involvement with the organization and the school board as an alignment of interests; both roles involve similar systems, policy, subject matters and stakeholders, with the primary difference being the age of the kids involved.

However, Noble will not seek reelection as board president in 2023 to focus on her new position.

She said she’ll continue the work Freeman and others started years ago.

“I am in total awe of what she has done and what she’s built in the organization,” Noble said of Freeman. “I’m a little bit terrified, for that reason, to take it on. … I have never met anybody who is quite as connected between head and heart.”

Noble hopes to continue to ensure public policy is well-informed by on-the-ground experiences of child care providers across the state while adding to decades of work professionalizing the early childhood education sector. The industry has long been under-resourced — primarily due to systemic sexism, she said — and Growing Up New Mexico can persist in efforts for widespread acknowledgment of the value of early childhood care.

“We have a unique position and a unique opportunity to grow the stovepipe between direct experiences with families and practical policy and implementation, while we build an industry,” Noble said. “… We need ginormous evolution and to bring perception around the incredible value and return on investment that early childhood brings to economies, to businesses, to governments, to society.”

Denish said Freeman’s ability to hire knowledgeable people — and her efforts in planning for her own retirement — will serve the organization well.

“She has built a really good succession plan for Growing Up New Mexico. … I think that’s really the sign of a real leader: somebody who can build a good succession team to take the reins,” Denish said.

Meanwhile, Quinn said Noble’s new perspective and familiarity with New Mexico policy will serve the organization well.

“As I’ve grown up with Growing Up New Mexico, it’s become very clear that organizations go through life cycles, just like we do,” Quinn said. “At this life cycle, it’s definitely time to turn it over to younger, energetic people who are in the trenches right now.”

Freeman said she feels good about the change, too. She’s ready to retire.

She isn’t entirely sure what she’ll be doing come April — when her departure becomes official — but she plans to stay in Santa Fe and get involved in advocacy of some kind.

“Service is my thing, so I will be doing something around early childhood or other kinds of issues that are important to me,” Freeman said.

Still, Freeman will never be far from Growing Up New Mexico. Her legacy gift from the organization’s staff will bring to life one of Freeman’s major goals for the Early Learning Center at Kaune: an outdoor learning space replete with a vegetable garden, pollinator-friendly flower beds, solar panels and experiential learning opportunities involving water, plants and garden creatures.

Freeman said the space will offer hope and education on environmental issues to students and parents alike.

“We want this to be an oasis for the community,” Freeman said of the garden.

The outdoor learning space, for which Growing Up New Mexico will fundraise in the spring, will be a living tribute to Freeman’s efforts.