Georgia State University (GSU) professor Tonia R. Durden believes the impact of her work extends far beyond the Metro Atlanta area. “We are a national model of what a minority-serving institution can achieve,” she says. “We’re responsible for an ethnically diverse wave of professionals moving up the career ladder in our field.”
More than 900 miles to the north, Dr. Lauren “Candy” Waukau-Villagomez describes the particular strengths of the teachers studying at the College of Menominee Nation. “We have subjugated knowledge. That means we’ve been disrespected and disregarded by the dominant culture. We have to learn to decolonize ourselves.”
The urgent work of both women received a boost last month through the Transforming ECE Lead Teacher Preparation Programs Grant Opportunity made by the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, a coalition of nine funders that includes the Ballmer Group, the Bezos Family Foundation, the Buffet Early Childhood Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Stranahan Foundation and TSNE MissionWorks.
Dr. Ola J. Friday, recently named inaugural Director of the Collaborative, explains that while each grantmaker in the group has its own priorities and styles, they are aligned around a common, ambitious vision of transforming the way early educators are prepared, bringing their compensation in line with their skills and ensuring that all children have great teachers.
Totaling $10.4 million, the six grants target educational institutions across the country that are boosting the capacity of the child care workforce and making it even more resilient. “All six grants focus on the most important lever of early education,” says Dr. Friday, “and that’s the people doing the work.”
Georgia on Their Minds
Professor Durden, Birth through Five program coordinator of GSU’s Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education, envisions a day when early education is a career that compensates workers as professionals and treats them with respect. “There’s still a gap,” she says, “between how society views us and the skills and competencies we deploy every day.”
The new grants will help GSU to make progress on closing this gap. It starts with spreading the word about a viable and thriving career. That includes strengthening partnerships with the local YMCA early childhood programs, Atlanta Public Schools, the Technical College System of Georgia (a network of 22 colleges on 88 campuses), Atlanta Black Child Development Institute, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, and Georgia’s Professional Standards Commission.
The Birth through Five Program starts engagement as soon as GSU accepts students, rather than waiting for them to choose this concentration. Professor Durden says the Innovation Grant will help her attract students to and retain them for a program that prepares them to teach young children in and beyond her state, and positions them for career advancement. “We believe that every early-education teacher in Georgia who wants to, should be able to get her four-year degree.”
With a focus on people already working in the field—after all, they know what they’re getting into—the program offers late-afternoon and evening classes. If a prerequisite course is offered only at 1:00 p.m., it won’t fit their work schedules. Students shouldn’t have to navigate that kind of obstacle on their own, Durden notes. The program team gets involved.
“Making early education and care an attractive field now and in the future means fundamentally reshaping early childhood jobs to provide fair compensation and reasonable working conditions. Not only will this change make a meaningful difference to the lives of current and future early educators—and therefore the children in their care — but it will be a major step forward in the valuing of historically feminine work and toward a more gender and racially just society.”
The Birth through Five Program eliminates financial and systemic barriers through retention scholarships and an innovative partnership with the Atlanta Black Child Development Institute that matches students with peer coaches. Nine out of 10 students in the program are Black or Latina, and the supports offered by the Birth through Five Program reflect that reality. “You can’t put this project in a bubble. You can’t ignore the historic trauma of racism and racial terror, therefore our program not only focuses on teacher preparation but also provides culturally responsive engagement to our program participants and is also grounded in racial educational equity,” Durden asserts.
She adds: “Our graduates are attaining leadership positions in the field because they have become experts in high-quality, culturally relevant child education.”
Resilience on the Reservation
“We’re a small, creative program,” says Dr. Waukau-Villagomez about the education department at the College of the Menominee, northwest of Green Bay in Keshena, Wis. “It’s not big and bureaucratic.”
She is especially proud of Sacred Little Ones, a collection of student-written and -illustrated storybooks including “The Frybread Man” and “How the Porcupine Got Its Quills,” along with lesson plans.
It might sound strange to teachers who want to leave their work behind them at the end of the day, but Dr. Waukau-Villagomez (recently named Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s Outstanding Indian Elder of the Year) says that on the reservation, everybody knows everybody’s business. Educating teachers who are culturally responsive means more than teaching the Menominee language through song, dance and nursery rhymes; it means family and personal issues are part of the curriculum. “We’re gossips,” she admits, adding, “You can’t teach unless you make a personal connection.”
Many of the students here are coping with work and family issues while they’re going to school. “They take a little longer,” Dr. Waukau-Villagomez says. Markie Miller, for example, began course work in 2004, when the first of her three children was still a toddler.
“Markie pushes herself,” says Dr. Waukau-Villagomez. “She’s a hard worker. School hasn’t always been easy for her, but nothing was going to stop her.”
The Covid pandemic has caused extensive economic and emotional damage on the reservation. Kelli Chelberg, Ed.D., chair of the Teacher Education Department at the College of Menominee Nation, says the reservation sent out school buses outfitted with WiFi and provided laptops and hotspots. Despite these and other efforts, a number of young children became disconnected from schooling.
As with many areas of the country where families are struggling, opioid and alcohol abuse are prevalent on the reservation. Miller says she’s had to have difficult conversations with parents. “I’ve had to pull them aside and say, ‘This isn’t okay. What can I do to help?’” she recalls.
Alongside the challenges of life on the Menominee reservation is a longstanding tradition of activism, most notably embodied by Ada Deer, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior and Head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1990s. Teaching children belongs to this heritage.
“Our students realize they are educational leaders,” says Dr. Waukau-Villagomez. “They gain the courage to share their knowledge with those who don’t want to hear it.”
Shared Knowledge and Competencies Are Needed Across the Workforce
As children progress from infancy to preschool and through their early elementary years, it is important for them to have continuous, consistent, high-quality support for their development and learning. Ensuring this continuity and quality means that all professionals who work with children need a shared base of knowledge and skills. Across age ranges and settings, care and education professionals need:
core knowledge of developmental science and content knowledge;
mastery of practices that help children learn and develop on individual pathways;
knowledge of how to work with diverse populations of children;
the capability to partner with children’s families and with professional colleagues; and
the ability to access and engage in ongoing professional learning to keep current in their knowledge and continuously improve their professional practice.
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.