Early childhood education in Vermont received a boost when in 2014 the state legislature passed, and Gov. Peter Shumlin signed, Act 166, which "requires all Vermont school districts to provide universal publicly funded pre-kindergarten education for a minimum of 10 hours per week for 35 weeks annually for all 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children who are not enrolled in kindergarten," according to the Vermont Agency of Education website.
Although school districts may opt to postpone full implementation until July 1, 2016, the need for licensed early education teachers already exceeds supply.
The Early Childhood Education program at the Windham Regional Career Center is expanding its course offerings, providing students with access to a career ladder in ECE.
All the Career Center's ECE courses are offered each year. Starting in tenth grade, students can enroll in "Introduction to Early Childhood Education," which the Program of Studies describes as preparing "the student to perform in various child-care settings, such as early learning centers, nursery schools, registered home day care and elementary classrooms." ECE students have to pass a background check before they start working with children.
The introductory course focuses on observation of children through the developmental domains, according to Linda Quay, ECE teacher, who designed the sequence of courses and teaches them.
"We look at the ages and stages from conception to age five." The WRCC will run two introductory classes each semester because the course "is highly enrolled," she added. "It's how we get students started."
Then as juniors, students can take three WRCC courses that offer dual-credit through Community College of Vermont. Dual credit means a student earns both high school credits and CCV credits at the same time. One course, "Fostering Creativity," emphasizes "the exploration and integration of the creative process in the learning environment," Quay said. "Young kids are just creative. We look at ways of enhancing that natural creativity. It's tough for some high school students to grasp; they say, 'I'm not creative at all.'"
The "Infant and Toddler Development" course explores "the process of human development from conception through 36 months of age," according to the description in the Program of Studies.
A key requirement of this course, Quay said, is a semester project that focuses on a family.
"The student has to get permission from the parents and interview them," she explained. "Then the student has to conduct observations of the child directly related to each of the developmental domains. After gathering all this information and assessing it, the student develops a suggested plan for how the parents can work with their child to meet that child's needs. And all of this has to be done outside of class time."
A third dual-credit course, "Communications in the ECE Workplace," according to the course description, helps students "develop effective communication and relationship-building skills for use in the early childhood education and afterschool workplace," as well as create a teaching portfolio.
"In developing a teaching portfolio," Quay said, "the students pull together all their experiences. They also prepare for interviewing, whether for a job or for college."
Finally, in spring semester of senior year, students are eligible to enroll in "Student Teaching: an ECE Practicum," also offered for dual credit. In this course, as described in the Program of Studies, students have "the opportunity to put teaching theory into practice in a field-based learning experience." Students are placed in supervised cooperative work sites, such as classrooms or childcare centers, going during their ECE class time, five days a week.
"The students first come to school, then go to their co-op site," Quay said. "In the past, we've placed students at Academy School; Early Education Services, which now oversees the Infant-Toddler Center at the WRCC; The Family Garden; Green Street School; Oak Grove School; and West Bee Nursery."
Adults are welcome to enroll in any WRCC classes on a space-available basis, according to Joyce Rathbun, WRCC Administrative Assistant.
"We have to offer to students first," she said in an email, "and then if there is room, an adult can join."
Quay started the ECE program at the career center 18 years ago by teaching parenting skills to students who were teen parents and whose children were enrolled in the Career Center's daycare facility. Following a "huge decline in teen pregnancy," she said, the Windham Childcare Association talked to then-director of the career center, Bill Dennen, about taking over the childcare center. Quay taught a basic introductory childcare course for those interested in working with children. She also taught health occupations courses.
Quay is enthusiastic about the expanded program of ECE courses at the career center.
"Students who complete the program are on a pathway for a career in early childhood education," she said. "Students will graduate with training that qualifies them for starting a home daycare or working in a childcare center. Or they may go on to college education programs to prepare for teaching or becoming a director at a childcare center."
While Quay emphasizes that the ECE courses are not parenting courses, she notes that if students become parents at some point in their lives, they will have knowledge about child development and parenting that will serve them well.
Current and former ECE students are enthusiastic about their experiences.
Tia Gilbeau, a sophomore from Brattleboro, is currently enrolled in the ECE introductory course. She said that she had planned to follow her mother into a nursing career, but recently her interest shifted to early childhood education.
"There is so much to learn about child development and what children need to have healthy growth and development," she said. Her current plan is to major in early childhood education in college, then to work in a daycare setting with children between the ages of six months and two years.
Honour Solari, a senior from Brattleboro, is enrolled in the introductory course this semester and plans to take Infant and Toddler Development next semester.
"I have twin brothers who are a year-and-a-half old," she said. "Helping out with them has played a part in my decision to major in early childhood education when I start college in the fall."
Since Solari is taking three dual-credit courses this academic year, she will have earned a total of nine college credits before she starts college.
Kayla Savage, a 2014 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School from Vernon, is currently a sophomore at Keene State College. She said the ECE courses she took at WRCC, including her supervised co-op teaching placement at Vernon Elementary School, provided her with excellent preparation for her coursework at KSC, plus she had earned six college credits by the time she graduated from high school. She is deciding between early childhood education and elementary school education as her major, in addition to her major in geography.
"I really liked working with kindergarten-aged students (during co-op) at Vernon Elementary," she said, "so now I'm wondering if I'd prefer working with even younger children."
Brenda Atwater, from Vernon (BUHS 2013), now a junior at the University of Vermont, took two of the ECE courses: Introduction to ECE and Fostering Creativity. At UVM, she is majoring in early childhood education, birth to grade 3; and special education, kindergarten to grade 8. She definitely plans to teach.
"It was an opportunity to have hands-on experience," she said by phone of the WRCC courses. "Now that I'm in the classroom, it's helpful to have an ECE background. A lot of the (UVM) students, it's their first time working with kids."
Nancy Witherill, Resource Development Specialist at Windham Childcare Association, said those with training and experience would be in demand.
"The early education field has a fairly well-defined career ladder," she said.
"One thing Act 166 may do is increase the number of better paying jobs in early childhood education because it requires people to get college degrees and teacher licensure. It is state-wide recognition that ECE needs more trained folks. High school students who have earned college credit are helped along that career track more quickly."