School districts and childcare centers nationwide are actively looking for graduates in early childhood education programs to become the next generation of “nurturers.”
“However, one theme we see is the public’s perception of what early childhood development is,” said Sharyn Thomas, early childhood education instructor at Northeast Community College. “We are also dealing with a shortage of qualified workers, a system of licensing, certification and education, and inadequate compensation.”
Northeast offers two degrees through its early childhood education program to meet industry needs.
An associate of applied science (AAS) degree is designed to allow students to seek immediate employment in the early childhood workforce. Most graduates with this degree option work in early childhood facilities or home childcare settings.
The second option, the associate of arts (AA) degree transfers to four-year institutions. Students can pursue an early childhood education inclusive option, which prepares them to teach preschool through third grade. The other option is a degree in early childhood education in the family and consumer science field. Students who choose this option most often work in administration in childcare centers.
Thomas, who serves as the program’s full-time instructor and is assisted by five adjunct instructors, said retention in the program has increased dramatically through a cohort registration pilot program.
“Students take common early childhood education coursework and general education classes together. The goal is for students to develop learning communities that allows them to work and study together. The students are divided based upon their degree choice, whether the AA or AAS. After one-year, we have seen student retention in our program increase from 56-percent to 70-percent.”
Connie Sixta, associate dean of humanities, arts and social sciences, said the program is working with students on another level. Early childhood education has been participating in the “Fridays@Northeast” program, which allows high school seniors to spend the final day of the school week on campus as college students.
Students may enroll in four classes - Infant and Toddler Development, Pre-School Development, Health, Safety and Nutrition and Introduction to Early Childhood Development.
Sixta said they will modify how the “Fridays” program is offered beginning this fall.
“We discovered that (high school) students don’t want to be on campus on Friday afternoons, so classes will be run as hybrid classes – two classes in the morning while the other half of the coursework can be done online.”
In addition, college students in both degree programs may take classes online. Northeast has a collaboration agreement with Nebraska’s other community colleges and the university system that includes a program of ten core courses that apply toward a degree. Northeast courses also transfer to four-year institutions in the state.
Thomas said her students also have opportunities to engage with children outside of the classroom as the program currently has several hands-on learning practicum sites in Norfolk and the surrounding area to help train students.
“Our students gain valuable teaching skills through their interaction with young children.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the job outlook nationally for childcare workers is projected to increase seven-percent through 2026, while it is expected to rise 11-percent for pre-school and childcare center directors.
Sixta said Northeast’s early childhood education program has a strong placement rate for graduates with most academic years seeing 100-percent of students either obtaining employment or continuing their education.
“Eighty-nine percent of our students had jobs related to their education with a majority of them living and working in Nebraska, and specifically in northeast and northcentral Nebraska. We are definitely serving our area in meeting the workforce needs of early childhood centers and schools.”
The Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln works with schools, communities and families to apply best practices of what is known about early childhood care. While Northeast has worked with the institute in the past on industry-related matters, research has found that several challenges remain in the profession, including higher compensation.
One way the Buffet Institute has helped address the pay issue is by endorsing legislation in the Nebraska Legislature that would award tax credits to people who work in the childcare industry. There are some requirements, however. The minimum level to receive credits is that a person would have to have a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential and be enrolled in a program known as ‘Step Up to Quality.
“Step Up to Quality is designed to encourage professionals to improve their knowledge-base of early childhood education, “Thomas said. “Research has shown that early child care and education is crucial to a child’s future success as 90-percent of their brain development occurs before age five.”
Meanwhile, Sixta said when it comes to compensation, “too often we look at the lowest paid folks in the industry and not what the other higher paid options are for students. As students get more experience, many of them will develop their own in-home childcare settings, and if they are at the maximum allowed as a licensed childcare provider, they can do quite well financially.”
Thomas stressed that the Northeast program caters to educational childcare working towards the development and stimulation of the minds of children, not custodial childcare. Her students learn the essential skills needed to care and nurture children from birth to age eight.
Thomas said since nearly 80-percent of Nebraska children are enrolled in some type of childcare and education during their early years, it is necessary to have a skilled, informed and diverse workforce to support their development.
“We want our students to stimulate minds of infants and toddlers early on. This is not about babysitting, it’s about educating children,” she said.
Sharyn Thomas, early childhood education instructor at Northeast Community College, (center) visits with Julie Robinson, of Norfolk, and Del Ames, of Neligh, and their fellow members of the Board of Governors during a visit to the early childhood education lab at the College recently.