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June 10

RAISING QUALITY AND ACCESS
TO EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION IN NEBRASKA20220521_CommercialStills_ATC_EVC_WestsideHS-04379.jpg

Fears of a pending recession that had worried American economists during the past few years have mostly eased in recent months. Many industries and businesses negatively impacted during the pandemic have bounced back.

And then there’s the childcare industry.

In Nebraska, 230 licensed childcare providers closed their doors during the pandemic. Many have not reopened. Of Nebraska’s 93 counties, 12 do not have a single licensed childcare provider operating within their boundaries.

 “During the pandemic, we learned that consistent childcare equals a consistent workforce,” said Robert Patterson, chief executive officer for Kids Can Community Center, a licensed nonprofit provider of early childhood care based in South Omaha. 

Metropolitan Community College and its early childhood education partners like Kids Can are engaged in a practical solution to elevate the profession and improve access to licensure in the field. With the creation of a bilingual, online Childhood Development Associate program made possible through the Holland Foundation and a Nebraska Department of Education ReVision grant, MCC aims to make credentialing more accessible.

According to Jane Franklin, MCC dean of social sciences, the focused pathway removes barriers to completion by putting the program online, offering a bilingual track and having an MCC staff member solely dedicated to student success. More than 90 students have enrolled in the online program since it launched. After earning a noncredit Child Development Associate credential, students have the option to further their education in the field by working on an accredited Early Childhood Educator associate degree at MCC. 

Franklin credits early childhood education instructor Deanna Peterson with envisioning an online program aligned with the lifestyles of many of the people currently employed in the field but not credentialed. The College’s program embeds the 120 educational training hours required to earn the credential into the program. Previously, students had to schedule those hours independently, applying their skills at their workplace. 

The program also links students to work-study programs for paid internships/apprenticeships in early childhood, preschool and childcare centers. 

“Deanna Peterson saw early childhood educators having to drive all over the city to take all these classes and complete their training hours. She saw a lot of value in developing an online program,” Franklin said. “Having a bilingual offering added to our preschool program is a huge success story. We already have graduates, and it’s a big help to the workforce.

” Franklin said credentialing elevates the perception of the field and positively impacts the quality of services provided to young children during their most impressionable period of development. Early learning builds the foundation for skills needed in school, work and life, with 90% of brain development occurring before a child reaches age 5.

Franklin said Diana Molina, a bilingual early childhood development pathway coordinator who guides candidates to completion, has been crucial to student success. Molina was also instrumental in the development of the Spanish language version of the Preschool CDA program, collaborating with instructional designers and improving the existing program by implementing a more interactive learning framework, Franklin said. 

Removing barriers and forging new pathways for access, enrollment and completion 

Molina, who earned her associate in early childhood education at MCC, has worked in the childcare field for more than 10 years. Franklin said Molina’s proactive approach to her work and knowledge of the challenges facing workers in the field has been invaluable to MCC and students enrolled in the online program.

Molina meets with students where it works for them. She started offering in-person workshops every week, providing an opportunity for students to have one-on-one time and get their questions answered. Students also have access to MCC career coaches who work in early childhood education centers. 

“It’s self-paced, but I’ve found that providing some regularly occurring meetings for the candidates helps them move through the program. I think having the relationship with the coach who works at the center is also super important. It makes the candidate feel like they aren’t doing this alone,” Molina said.

Franklin said removing barriers for people already working in the field to participate in the College’s program can be a source of self-discovery, bring the potential for higher pay, as well as options for further education in related fields also in need of workers. 

“So many people in early childhood education don’t know how smart they are, how articulate and skilled they are. Then they take the CDA exam and suddenly realize, ‘Oh, I can do all the college work. And I want to take the next step and earn my associate degree,’” Franklin said.

 MCC offers two credentials in its Early Childhood Education program covering two age groups — Infant/Toddler (19.5 credits) or Preschool (16.5 credits) Childhood Development Associate.

 Students can begin the College’s program through a dual credit High School Career Academy and then earn their chosen CDA at MCC. 

From there, they may either go into the workforce with a credential that is recognized throughout the United States, or with around 20% of their total credits needed for an Early Childhood Educator associate degree already attained through their CDA certification, continue on with their education at MCC. Students may transfer to a university to earn their bachelor’s degree, which could lead to a job in education. 

It’s a big help to the workforce to add highly skilled and trained people in this field,” Franklin said.

A calling to teach

Arlene Garcia, 19, enrolled in the MCC Certified Nursing Assistant High School Academy while attending Bellevue West. While enrolled in the academy, through an internship opportunity with Educare of Omaha, Inc., a provider of early education to children ages 0 to 5, she realized she wanted to work more directly and hands-on with children than she would be able to in nursing.

“I’ve always loved volunteering at my church, helping out with my siblings and building relationships with the kids at Educare. One day, I realized I was already becoming a teacher,” Garcia said. “So much of teaching is wanting to be there, and when kids see that you love your job, it makes a big difference in their learning.” 

Garcia, who is bilingual and is now working on her bachelor’s degree at University of Nebraska Omaha to become an ESL instructor, said the online component of the MCC program made earning her Infant/Toddler CDA much more manageable. 

“I probably would have gotten burned out if I couldn’t do it online because I was still going to high school, had to work after school and the transportation would have been difficult. I think I would have gotten overwhelmed from the schoolwork I needed to keep up with. Being able to do it at home when I knew I could make time for it was really helpful,” Garcia said. 

Being a teaching aide for Educare, which serves a large Hispanic population, helped her see the difference she was making with bilingual families. 

“I realized that when you integrate both languages into a classroom, that makes such a big impact for the kids who are learning English but are also still able to keep their culture and language,” Garcia said. “The kids light up when I speak to them in Spanish, and when their parents see that I am able to understand and help their kids, I think it makes them feel like it’s a safer place for their child to be and makes them feel more welcome.”

Raising quality, boosting workforce 

In addition to creating better access to early childhood education careers through an online, bilingual offering, the more people working in the field who earn their certification raises the quality of care across the entire provider ecosystem and increases the availability of skilled workers. 

Patterson said families having access to quality services is critical. Children who receive quality early childhood education are more likely to show improved reading and math skills, graduate high school, attend college, have a job and earn high wages. He also noted that the state’s entire workforce hinges on the reliability of childcare. For every one childcare center that closes, dozens of families and their respective employers are impacted. 

Kids Can participates in Nebraska’s Step Up to Quality program, which provides a statewide rating system for families to identify early childhood providers that demonstrate a commitment to quality care. Kids Can is one of a handful of providers to attain the highest rating (Step 5) in an outlined path to quality improvement. 

T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® NEBRASKA provides scholarships to help early care and education professionals complete coursework. The organization covers 90% of tuition for required college credit classes and also provides financial incentives for students who reach checkpoints along the way to licensure. Patterson said Kids Can elects to fund its employees’ participation in the MCC Early Childhood Education program because he sees the value. 

“The level of education a provider’s childhood development associates has is a big identifier of quality in the Step Up to Quality program. With the horrible effect the pandemic had on the industry, there’s a lot of work ahead of us, so this is my priority. It’s my dream that each of our staff members has a CDA certification,” Patterson said.

The MCC Early Childhood Education Program has transfer agreements in place with Creighton, Midland University, Peru State College, University of Nebraska at Kearney and University of Nebraska Omaha. Visit mccneb.edu/Early-Childhood-Education for more information.