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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 January 24 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Precious Minds

Photo courtesy Edmonds Community College

Early childhood education programs are based on close relationships between teachers and students.

Precious Minds

Colleges at Center of Push for Higher Standards
In Early Childhood Ed

By Paul Bradley

They have been called our most precious resources — young children, infants and toddlers, pre-schoolers and kindergartners, ever precocious and curious. Yet for the last four decades, as women have flooded into the workforce, creating a demand for quality daycare and pre-school programs, they have seldom been treated that way by policymakers.

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Despite strong evidence and growing acknowledgment that the years from birth to age 3 are critically important — the time when a child’s brain develops and begins making connections to the larger world — early childhood education remains an afterthought for those at the forefront of the education reform movement. Not only is the debate around public education dominated by public school choice, charter schools, dropout prevention programs and linking teacher pay to student performance, but public funding for pre-K programs is a fraction of per-pupil K-12 spending.

Now, however, calls are growing for a new emphasis on improving early childhood education as the bedrock for lifelong learning. Last year, a report by the New America Foundation said pre-kindergarten education “has long been the poor stepchild of the public education system, with fewer resources, spotty quality standards, and limited attention to to children’s learning outcomes. To provide children with a solid foundation for success before they enter school, we need to start treating pre-K as a fundamental component of the education system, not an optional add-on.”

The report adds: “Pre-K programs must be funded at levels that allow them to employ highly skilled teachers who have the same educational credentials — a bachelor’s degree and state teacher licensure — as their colleagues in grades K-12.”

“Teachers working with young children must have higher education levels that enable them to support that development.”

Even before the report was issued, a growing number of pre-school programs and parents were demanding that early education professionals have formal training — at the least an associate degree. And that’s why, in part, early childhood education programs at two-year schools around the country are thriving and experiencing record enrollment.

Accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children has become a coveted distinction.

“It has been the domain of community colleges for a long time,” said Connie Schatz, director of the early childhood education program at Edmonds Community College in Washington state. “A school of education at a four-year college might have an early childhood education endorsement, but a bachelor’s degree that focuses on those first five years is rare.”

Head Start, the venerable federal early childhood education program for needy families, is leading the drive toward better educational credentials for pre-school teachers. The program already requires its teachers to have at least an associate degree, and lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree. In 2012, a new requirement will kick in requiring one-half of the teachers in Head Start settings to have four-year degrees.

For community colleges, early childhood education programs present a familiar challenge: balancing a robust workforce education program while infusing it with rigorous academics. Despite low pay, early childhood educators are in high demand across the country. They can work in a wide variety of settings: in daycare centers, assisting teachers in elementary school classrooms, in Head Start centers, as parent educators. Community colleges routinely report 100 percent placement rates for their graduates.

At Edmonds, the early childhood education program enrolls 225 students. They can aim to go directly into the workforce by earning a one-year certificate or an associate of technical arts degree, or they can earn an associate of arts degree and transfer to colleges of education at three Washington universities.

Schatz said many of the Edmonds students already work as early childhood educators and are in school wishing to burnish their educational credentials. That imperative has been underscored in the state of Washington, which in 2006 established a cabinet-level Department of Early Learning, which strives to improve the state’s early childhood education programs.

The word is out that the field of early childhood education is heading toward requiring more professionalism and education.

“We see a lot of people who have been working with children for 20 years, and they say it’s time for them to get a degree,” Schatz said. “There is no question that employers are looking for a minimum of a credential or an associate degree. People who are looking to work in leadership positions really need a bachelor’s degree. The real challenge is to provide pathways. We need to have entry at all levels.”

One thing the early childhood education program at Edmonds does not have is an on-line component. That is by choice.

“We have stayed very consistent with the notion that our students are interacting with children. Learning is so relationship-based it’s hard to replicate the classroom setting.”

Across the country, in Pennsylvania, Northampton Community College has taken a different approach. About one-half of the 600 students in the college’s Center for Early Childhood Education associate degree program are enrolled on-line, said Rebecca Gorton, director of the center.

“We have a whole section of our state that is rural,” she said. “The on-line component gives them access they wouldn’t have otherwise. It helps women who have families and are working and might have to do their class work at 4 in the morning.”

That doesn’t mean that the Northampton program is centered on distance education. The program has been in existence for about 40 years and has produced thousands of graduates.

“We like to think of ourselves as a leader,” she said. “The college has been committed to early childhood education for four decades. That has allowed us to be creative and give students the best possible program.”

Northampton also has something else that makes it attractive to students: they don’t have to leave campus to fulfill their required practicum. The college operates Children’s Centers on its Bethlehem and Monroe campuses; the centers accept children 6 weeks of agethrough kindergarten and are staffed by qualified teachers employed by the college. The highly praised centers offer full- and part-time care and education on a semester, academic year or full year basis to children of NCC students, staff and the community.

Art as a Way of Learning

The centers use art as a way of learning, making the arts central to teaching and learning, enabling children and adults to use the arts to construct and express knowledge, and develop critical and creative thinking, Gorton said.

“Children use art naturally,” she said. “As they begin to make marks with a crayon or a marker, these are artistic marks. Children naturally like to sing. The arts are a symbol system. It helps us know what they are thinking and what they are learning. Children learn best when they are doing things that interest them. We link those interests to our learning standards.”

Northampton students have a wide variety of options.

They can earn an early childhood certificate that allows them to immediately go to work as an assistant teacher. They can earn an associate degree, get a job as a teacher or assistant teacher in child care or transfer to a bachelor-degree granting institution to become a certified teacher. They can earn a child development associate specialized diploma, designed for students who need an entry-level nationally-recognized credential. The school also offers a program designed for current and future directors and owners of early education programs. About half the students enrolled in the program go on to a four-year college.

At NCC, the certificate and degree programs are inter-related, Gorton said. The college’s career lattice approach allows easy movement from one program to another.

“All of the courses that they take can lead to a degree,” Gorton said. “Students can get a certificate and get a job. Or they can go on to get an associate degree.”

Students are also taught to be advocates for families and children and push for better pay for early childhood educators. Low pay continues to be a factor that contributes to high turnover rates in the early childhood education field.

“It really is one of the big things we have to deal with,” Gorton said. “Right now, the economy is not supportive of salary increases. People have to understand this is not babysitting. That is one of the perceptions. But it can’t be that.

“The minds of our children are too precious.”

It’s YOUR TURN.  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  Is your college’s early childhood  education program in high demand?

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