Colorado Mountain College enhances focus on need for early childhood education
College partners with Eagle County school district and City of Aspen’s Kids First program to help teachers earn critical certification without barriers
Early childhood education provides a vital service to the community. Not only are these educators and providers tasked with teaching children and promoting their healthy development at a critical age, but it’s a service upon which the local workforce relies.
However, as a result of the pandemic, staffing shortages have created a bit of a crisis in early childhood. In Eagle County, many child care providers have had to shorten hours, limit services or cancel programs altogether because they can’t hire enough qualified teachers.
While some of these challenges are not new, there has been an increased spotlight on them as community leaders and institutions strive to find solutions.
“I think our challenges are bigger than ever before because of the pandemic. The pandemic has really stressed early childhood education, really put it in the realm of essential services. I think that’s been a good thing,” said Barbara Jackman, an early childhood education professor at Colorado Mountain College. Jackman also coordinates all the early childhood programs for the college.
“All of us in the field have known that early childhood is an essential service for families to be able to work, but I think child care has evolved so insidiously that I don’t think people realized how important it was as much as they did after the pandemic,” she said.
And higher education plays an important role in solving some of the challenges currently facing providers.
“Our role and our mission really is looking at training well-qualified teachers. That’s our ultimate mission, to create positive benefits for children and those positive benefits for children positively impact communities,” Jackman said.
Colorado Mountain College offers three certificates and two associates degrees in its early childhood program. This includes certificates for early childhood teachers, group leaders and directors as well as an associate of arts and an associate of applied science, both in early childhood education. The program is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and is an approved career and technical education program.
Part of the college’s responsibility, Jackman added, is to its teachers, many of whom are already working in the field.
“We also have another responsibility on top of that of advocating for our students that are teachers and directors and centers and home visitation providers,” she said, adding that this includes not only their training, but also their well-being.
And while there is a shortage of qualified teachers in the workforce, Jackman reported that enrollment in these programs has not declined.
“Their commitment to the children and the families they work with is huge,” she said.
The reason for this paradox, she suggested, is that even with this commitment, the higher education trajectory for most early childhood teachers is reversed from K-12 educators, who earn their degrees before entering the field.
“For most of them, the vast majority, they get a job and then get trained,” Jackman said.
The teacher shortage — which has been exacerbated by the pandemic with 30% of early childhood teachers not returning to the field after leaving, Jackman said — can be tied back to low salaries and wages.
“We really know, and benefit from, the fact that most early childhood education teachers do it because they love it, but when it becomes a matter of economic survival, it drives them out of the field,” Jackman said. “We really need to do more, particularly more around teacher pay and incentives for teachers to become qualified.”
Currently, the salary, according to Patricia Matus-Amat, an early childhood education associate profession at the Community College of Denver and adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College, is “nothing compared to the responsibility they have and the dedication they have,” and that the job requires.
“For me, it’s one of the most important jobs. We have a huge responsibility to raise those children and do it right,” Matus-Amat said.
Plus, Jackman added that even with additional certifications or degrees, the salaries and wages don’t improve.
“We really are at a point — and this is becoming obvious to so many in the field — that we need to raise teacher’s wages and incentivize teachers to become highly qualified,” she said. “We know that qualified teachers have positive child outcomes, they create positive benefits in children. And unqualified can, unwittingly, do something that’s harmful to children.”
Right now, the staffing shortage is bolstered by the lack of qualified teachers, something that, as Jackman pointed out, is crucial to the success of child care programs. Two of the biggest barriers for teachers in getting their certifications are lack of money and time, Jackman said. Recently, Colorado Mountain College launched a pilot program that seeks to reduce the barriers for teachers to take higher education classes.
The idea for a new pilot program at the college was spurred by Jackman hearing that teachers were feeling depressed and stressed due to lack of support and pay, and that they didn’t have time or money for the coursework. This, she said, made her want to find a way to offer courses that better served teachers and that supported them “in a way that doesn’t compromise their learning.”
The pilot program allows non-certified teachers to earn an entry-level certificate by taking free courses during work hours, when they are compensated.
“That’s what they need and that’s what the center’s need, for them to have that certificate to be able to operate efficiently and be able to operate,” she said.
When Jackman floated the idea out to the college’s community partners, the City of Aspen’s Kids First program as well as Eagle County School District expressed an interest in the pilot program. This fall, in the pilot’s inaugural year, the college is offering two sessions for one of the two courses required to earn the certificate. In the spring, it will offer the two sessions of the second required course. One session in each semester is taught bilingually in both Spanish and English.
These courses not only earn the participants a certification, but they give them a basic foundation of early childhood education, Jackman said.
The courses are being offered for free, thanks to “a number of collaborative funding streams,” Jackman said. However, going forward, building off of its current momentum and success, Jackman hopes to find a “sustainable funding stream” to not only continue the program, but roll it out college-wide.
Currently, there are 14 teachers enrolled in the program. And so far, Matus-Amat said they have been “happy and thankful for this opportunity.”
For one local teacher, Xochitl Rincon, who is serving in her first school year as a non-certified preschool assistant teacher at Red Hill Elementary School, this program has improved her skills, and not just as a professional.
“It helped me a lot with my kids in Red Hill Elementary School because now I have more information about how to have more patience with the kids, how to listen to kids and [how to] take my observations and take more time with some kids in a specific area,” Rincon said. “All this information helps me as a teacher and as a mom too.”
While Rincon’s love of kids brought her to the job, the skills and strategies she learning through this program have allowed her to meet the unique needs of all her students.
“I have learned different things about development, about what we have to expect in different ages of kids,” Rincon said. “Every child is different, and you have to take different strategies to every single child.”
And with four kids at home, it would be very difficult for Rincon to take this course after work. Instead, taking it during work hours gives her the opportunity to earn her certification while getting paid.
Rincon is also one of the program’s students who is taking advantage of the bilingual course being offered in the pilot. The dual-language course is being taught by Matus-Amat.
The benefit of which, Matus Amat said, is that it encourages those that may not feel comfortable and shows them that they are capable.
“When you feel comfortable in the language, then you can get the knowledge,” she said. “It’s a very good way to support them.”
Matus-Amat added that by teaching in both their first language as well as English, it sets teachers up to be more successful, teaches them English and helps them feel comfortable learning in English down the road. “Most of them are afraid to take classes totally in English,” she said.
Rincon said that offering this class in Spanish and English has made a huge difference in her ability to take her knowledge back to her students.
“We really need classes in Spanish to understand every single class,” Rincon said, adding that every class provides her important information to take back to class and “apply it to our students.”
Not only does the course break down language barriers, but Matus-Amat said, coming from a Latin culture herself, she has a deeper understanding of how to teach her students.
Having representative demographics in the classroom has been a core focus for Jackman for nearly a decade.
“Part of the major values of early childhood education are to know who our teachers are going to be teaching,” Jackman said. “It’s really, really important that we are training teachers that look like and sound like our children. Because what we know is it sends a message to kids if they don’t. That’s a big piece with the dual language classes.”
She said that in the early childhood program this focus has led to a student body that is “much more representational” of the community it serves. College-wide, Colorado Mountain College was recently designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution, meaning the student body is comprised of 25% or more Latino students.
Part of the reason this pilot program — and the college’s early childhood program as a whole — is successful is that there is a tight-knit community around early childhood locally.
“We do work to have those relationships with our communities, with our directors, and we have directors in our classes,” Jackman said. “It’s really important that we realize that higher education and child care are partners and we need to listen to each other and be supportive of each other in responding, and we are.”
In the pilot program, this resulted in child care program directors being directly involved in selecting course time and driving how the program could best run.
More funding to come
Recently, funds were approved by President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan to allow prospective early childhood teachers to take two free introductory courses at Colorado’s two-year and four-year universities as well as community colleges. While Colorado Mountain College will be receiving funds from this, the money has yet to arrive.
Currently, the details for the funding are being “hammered out by Colorado Department of Human Services and Colorado Department of Higher Ed,” Jackman said, adding that the college is expected to have more information this fall.
However, Jackman said that these funds are another positive step in the right direction for solving the challenges facing early childhood education.
“I think it’s an excellent use of the money,” she said. “It’s really an exciting time for ECE because I think that there’s suddenly a synergy and people are really getting that it’s important that we invest in this because the investment pays off in society overall.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.