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A Head Start Apprenticeship in California Helps Child Care Workers

Claudia Campbell had tried several times to build her business as an in-home child care provider. She got her business license, but as a low-income mother of six in Emeryville Calif., she had to move often, and it was hard to keep families enrolled when her location kept changing. Meanwhile, she had also always wanted to go back to school to learn more about child development, but taking on those obligations was difficult as she was working at several different jobs to make ends meet.

“I’ve had my own children, and have taken care of others, but I’ve never had the education behind it,” Campbell said.

But then, through her local public housing authority, Campbell heard about a unique free apprenticeship for early childhood workers.  Today, she has completed 24 child development courses and nine general education courses toward her associate’s degree while working part-time as a substitute at a Head Start in Hayward, Calif. She goes to school four hours each day and works for another three and a half.  Eventually, she hopes to be hired as a family advocate for Head Start.

Campbell is part of a group of child care workers who are taking advantage of a program run by the YMCA of the East Bay - Early Childhood Impact in Northern California and the Service Employees International Union’s Early Educator Training Center. The program is operated in partnership with local colleges and universities and other Head Start employers.

In the nine-month work-study program, Head Start parents earn a California Child Development Associate Teacher Permit. The permit functions as an entry to the early childhood field, allowing them to work as full-time Head Start assistant teachers. The program has two additional tiers. Participants can attain an associate’s degree in child development or a bachelor’s degree, credentials that continue to help Head Start grantees to meet the 2007 federal requirement that stipulates that more than half of all Head Start teachers must have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood, child development or equivalent coursework. (Today more than 74 percent of Head Start teachers nationwide have a bachelor's or an advanced degree in early childhood or a related field, according to a recent report from Bellwether Education Partners.)

A Conundrum: New Demands but Little Training

It’s late and a cold night in the Bay Area in December of 2017.  Mothers with their children in tow are tackling early literacy development at a local school. Kids drift in and out of the classroom to check in with their parents. They’re keeping busy eating Cheetos and playing on mobile devices or with coloring sheets while their moms learn about the “serve and return” of teacher-child interactions. This is the final session of the weekly, semester-long course in Principles and Practices in Early Childhood Education as part of the Head Start Apprenticeship.There’s a tray of sandwiches and Christmas cookies. Many of the women have been at work or caring for children much of the day, and they’re discussing the importance of reading with children as young as infancy.

Most are nontraditional students—low income, juggling work and family, and maybe the first in their families to attend college. Most are already employed at Head Starts as substitutes or teachers aids. For some, English is a second language and bilingual students occasionally translate for their peers whose English isn’t as strong.

“How many of you are planning to take classes next semester?” the director, Joya Chavarin, asks the group on a break. “Ortensia are you taking a break? Let’s talk because next semester we do have child care for you and we do have tutoring on Saturday.”

The Head Start Apprenticeship is designed to help solve a growing problem in California: the lack of early childhood teachers.Experts say there are only enough licensed child care spaces for 25 percent of the children in the state who potentially need services while their parents work. The field is plagued with high turnover and recruitment challenges,especially in high-cost counties.

This shortage comes at a time when state and federal governments are placing higher expectations on teachers of young children as policymakers come to understand more about brain development and the importance of learning in the first years of life.

The apprenticeship is therefore designed to address the conundrum of requiring more from those who care for young children but offering few options to train them. New America’s recent paper, Re-thinking Credential Requirements in Early Education: Equity-Based Strategies for Professionalizing a Vulnerable Workforce, describes apprenticeship as an option for training members of the current workforce, many of whom are low-income and women of color, and who are more likely to be shut out of professional learning opportunities because they cannot afford them.   

The Head Start Apprenticeship is successful, says Randi Wolfe, who designed the program for SEIU, because its design meets the specific needs of nontraditional students.

“All of our workers are all low income. A lot of them are recent immigrants or one generation back or first generation college students,” she said. The Head Start Apprenticeship provides no-cost college courses and textbooks and offers classes at times and in locations that work well with students’ work schedules and family responsibilities. The apprenticeship also provides child care, transportation, and tutoring to help remove the barriers that adult students often face to course completion.

The YMCA’s Workforce Development Director Joya Chavarin says she’s observed students forming close relationships that form as organic learning communities and support structures.

“Students decided to stay after class and study together,” she said.  “It was fantastic because many of the students enrolled alone, but through participation in the apprenticeship they develop collegial relationships that strengthen their success as teachers.”

Chavarin also notes that 95 percent of her adult students are parents of children under 12. Many students she said relied on and reflected upon their experiences as children and parents while taking the courses, which also was an important asset and contributor to their success.

The workforce development community is taking note as it seeks to expand apprenticeship models that pair structured on-the-job learning with coaching and mentoring into new sectors and populations.

“Now that we have this in place,” Wolfe said, “I’m getting phone calls from community colleges and places around the state saying, ‘We’re interested in starting an apprenticeship. Can you help us?’”

This is not the only apprenticeship program for early childhood workers that SEIU and their partners have developed. A program for center-based child care workers with the Mexican American Opportunities Foundation in Southeast Los Angeles provides on-site mentoring, supervision, and college classes to assistant or associate teachers of preschool-aged children. Another program in the San Fernando and Antelope Valleys in Los Angeles County provides training, coaching, and no-cost college coursework to family child care providers.

For Claudia Campbell, it’s a dream come true.

She says she has learned so much already from her coursework, things she wishes she had known even before she became a parent—about temperament, development, the importance of listening to kids, and how to support diverse families.

“I waited for so long to get my degree,” she said. “I wish I could have taken these classes before I came a parent…I had a hard time listening to my kids. I shut them down because I’m the parent and whatever I say goes. That’s one of the things I’ve learned, you have to let your child be heard and there are times when they are right.”