Sept. 13, 2021
In the early 1990s, Mona Lisa Martinez was a teen parent attending Florence Crittenton High School in Denver, Colorado. While navigating the challenges of motherhood, she volunteered after school at her daughter’s child care center. She took a job doing secretarial work after graduation, but felt a calling to work with young children instead. Martinez took a few early childhood classes at Red Rocks Community College and was hired as an assistant educator. Over the years, after completing additional training and earning certifications, she worked her way up to a director position.
Today, Martinez is Director of Florence Crittenton’s Early Childhood Education Center, which serves children whose parents attend her former high school on the same campus. While her daughter is now 30, Martinez loves working with this population because she knows from personal experience what many of the teenage mothers are going through. After 21 years of experience in the field but no formal college degree, Martinez is achieving her goal of pursuing her bachelor’s degree thanks to an innovative program at University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver).
Higher education can equip early educators with important skills and knowledge necessary to support young children’s learning and development. But low wages combined with long work hours and oftentimes their own caregiving responsibilities can make traditional higher education programs feel out of reach for many early educators. Institutions of higher education (IHEs) can do more to set early educators up for success.
CU Denver’s place-based bachelor’s degree pilot is working to break down many of the key barriers that make it difficult for early educators to earn a degree. CU Denver is partnering with three local early care and education (ECE) programs—Clayton Early Learning, Sewall Child Development Center, and Mile High Early Learning—to offer higher education in-house (or more accurately, in-center). The first cohort started in fall 2020 with 20 early educators. The majority of the early educators are women of color and about 70 percent of them work with infants and toddlers.
Led by Dr. Rebecca Vlasin and Dr. Michael Barla, the program is rooted in three innovative characteristics. First, being place-based, the majority of the learning happens at the ECE centers where the students already work. Second, the courses are customized and differentiated based on the competencies each student has coming into the program. And third, it uses a cohort model to promote collaboration and support among students.
Research shows that having opportunities to observe and practice teaching are crucial to effective teacher preparation. And while almost all early educator preparation programs require some type of clinical experience, IHEs often have difficulty ensuring quality, meaningful experiences. For instance, teachers might have a short-term placement without valuable support or the chance to take on real responsibilities. Clinical experiences are also often unpaid and require students to take time away from their existing jobs.
In contrast, the place-based BA model revolves around on-the-job experience. It not only allows students to stay at their current jobs, it brings higher education to them and tailors the courses to their workplace. The program description explains, “Earning a BA and improving the everyday practice of a teacher becomes one and the same and seamless.” Educators are not required to take time off work, meaning they don’t miss a paycheck and their children aren’t left without their teacher.
When Martinez heard about the structure of CU Denver’s program she knew it would be a good fit for her busy life. She took a course on diversity in ECE last year and said she had “so many ‘aha’ moments.” She especially appreciated the relevance of the course given the national focus on racial justice last year. “I learned so many new views and strategies for working with parents and different cultures, not just in the classroom, but also in the overall environment,” she said. “I got a lot from taking this course even though I’ve worked hands-on for so long.”
The CU Denver program meets early educators where they are by tailoring courses to their experiences and focusing on competency-based education. According to Vlasin, “the entire program is based on the inquiry and the agency of the educator.” Educators enter the program at different stages in their careers and select courses based on the specific competencies they need to develop. Students work with faculty, a workplace-based coach, and their professional learning communities to dive into different topics. Vlasin described the courses as relevant, contextual, and rigorous.
Faculty also work with students to ensure they receive credit for prior learning. The program’s willingness to offer credit for the work she’s already done has been a “huge factor” for Martinez. She recalls meeting with Barla at the start of the program and going over the community college and training courses she had taken. “We had my transcripts, certifications. Then we went through the BA program that I was enrolling in. We went over those courses and compared the requirements to the classes, workshops, training, and credits that I’ve already done. “ It turns out that Martinez was already well on her way to a BA. She said, “It has taken a huge time frame for me to go across the finish line. It gave me a lot more hope that the efforts in other trainings are acknowledged.”
Program faculty are invested in their students’ success and have put numerous supports in place to help them navigate higher education. Faculty even take time to assist individual students with the application process for CU Denver. Barla recalls, “There were barriers to getting them into the university... we had people who didn't have high enough GPAs, didn't have transcripts... the list was long, in terms of challenges. But this kind of more individualized approach allows us to work through all of those to actually get them in.” There are also two Spanish-speaking advisors in the program to assist English as a second language students.
At a time when early educators are facing increased challenges, Barla and Vlasin believe the program is helping to retain teachers. The intensive coaching has added a new level of support in early educators’ jobs. Each week, students get up to an hour of one-on-one time with Barla or Vlasin as well as their coach. It is very rare to get that kind of undivided attention in a traditional college course.
Vlasin and Barla are also committed to eliminating the primary barrier standing in early educators’ way: the cost of a degree. Thanks to philanthropic funding, students do not pay for courses offered through the program. However, the funding doesn’t cover the cost of general education courses. Administrators are still trying to figure out how they can ensure there is no cost to students. And while completing the place-based BA program is not tied to any guaranteed increase in wages, the child care providers feel they are saving money over time by reducing turnover and hope to be able to eventually reinvest that money in compensation.
Most higher education programs are not granted this level of flexibility. Barla said, “We just started asking questions and we started identifying barriers that were keeping these educators from accessing higher education...and once we asked the questions, and we got a response, then we felt empowered to say ‘Well, what if? Why do we have to do it that way?’’’ When the response was “I don’t know,” they felt empowered to ask to try new approaches. “We figure out a way to get what the students need in order to continue to access their education,” said Barla.
Vlasin credits their courage to think big and take risks to the late Dr. Rebecca Kantor, the dean of CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development, who passed away earlier this year. Vlasin said, “She gave us the courage to really tear down some of the ways things have been done… she kind of helped us to say, ‘It's okay to be brave.’” They are carrying Kantor’s vision with them into the program’s second year.
The place-based BA pilot is just one component of the exciting work happening in Colorado around ECE. In June, CU Denver was awarded a grant from the Early Educator Investment Collaborative to transform higher education, with a focus on teacher credentialing and licensure, credit for prior learning, and compensation. Metropolitan State University, another local IHE, is building its own place-based BA as part of this grant. This comes as the state is in the process of creating a new department of ECE and working to implement universal pre-K by 2023.
As Mona Lisa Martinez enters her second year, she is optimistic. “Because of this program I am actually going to finish and get my BA in early childhood after 21 years. It’s a true blessing. I am so grateful for this program.”
Last year, New America released a report exploring barriers IHEs face in serving early educators based on the findings of a working group that we convened of 18 experts across relevant fields. The group identified almost a dozen bright spots at IHEs around the country that address common barriers like providing social, academic, and financial supports to early educators, or meeting the needs of this linguistically diverse workforce.
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