On a recent Tuesday morning, Raquel Irizarry had her hands full with a group of two- and three-year-olds. In a span of 30 minutes, she read aloud a story in Spanish about a hungry bear, re-enacted the “Three Little Pigs” during outdoor playtime and ran a pretend car wash — made more realistic with bubbles.

Working with children, she says, is “in my blood.”

Irizarry is a head teacher at Little Einstein’s Daycare in Logan Square. She started working there five years ago, at age 42. Since then, she has earned an entry-level credential that often serves as a stepping-stone to more schooling. And now every Tuesday after work, she boards a City Colleges of Chicago shuttle to Truman College in Uptown, where she’s taking her third college course toward an associate’s degree.

“I never thought in my lifetime that I’d go back to school,” she says. “I would love to go as far as I can in regards to my education… as long as I can get the financial help I need.”

Irizarry is one member of a small group of Northwest Side early childhood educators and aspiring educators who are taking child development courses together as part of a pilot program run by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The additional schooling certainly could be a boon to Irizarry, as it sets her up for higher pay and more options of where to work. But the program also aims at developing the local workforce, as early childhood educators often work in the community where they live.

“It’s about making sure our bilingual-bicultural teachers, current and future, get the professional development and support they need,” says Lucy Gomez-Feliciano, who oversees the effort for LSNA. She offers support and guidance — reminding students of deadlines and connecting them to Truman’s academic advisor — with the hope they’ll keep going for an associate’s degree, or more.

The LSNA program comes on the heels of a statewide effort to improve the quality of early childhood programs and strengthen training and support for early childhood teachers and principals. A federal $52.4 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant is funding much of the work.

But it also comes at a time when there are concerns that the pipeline of undergraduates studying early childhood education in Chicago is moving too slowly — especially as the city and state look to significantly expand preschool access.

In a 2010 report the Illinois Education Research Council attributes the slow pace to the fact that many students are enrolled part-time, taking eight or fewer course hours a semester, and are considered “pre-candidates” — that is, interested in the field but not officially enrolled in an early childhood program.

The pre-candidates often face financial challenges and are balancing other responsibilities — like work and family — that don’t allow for full-time study. They also may need to take remedial classes or receive intensive supports to be prepared to take college-level coursework.

Raquel Irizarry, a head teacher at Little Einstein's Daycare in Logan Square, blows bubbles outside with her class.
Raquel Irizarry, a head teacher at Little Einstein’s Daycare in Logan Square, blows bubbles outside with her class.

In an attempt to help those students, the state earmarked just over $1 million to bring two-year and four-year institutions together to find ways to get more early childhood education students to graduate with degrees. The money helped fund collaborations at two-thirds of the 80 schools across the state that offer an early education teacher prep program.

Awards ranged from $39,000 to $48,000 for initial projects, with another $30,000 if the partnership showed promise. Much of the money was used to free up faculty to focus on the new early childhood education work.

Stephanie Bernoteit, who helped oversee the grant program for the Illinois Board of Higher Education, says that although the grants given to colleges were relatively small, they were enough to cover the kind of work many faculty have wanted to do, but didn’t have time for in the past.

“They’re trying to think very strategically to make sure this work has real legs,” she says.

Benefits of more training

Substantial research has shown that the quality of interactions between children and classroom teachers contributes to learning and development.

Back in 1979, one of the first large-scale studies on the topic showed daycare “teachers with specialized training were found to engage in significantly more positive interactions with children, compared to teachers with no training,” according to a 2007 review of research over the last few decades published by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Children whose teachers were more specially trained were more cooperative and involved with activities than other children and “notably, in centers where all of the teachers had specialized training, children demonstrated an advantage on tests of school readiness skills.”

The latest state staffing survey of licensed child care facilities shows about 92 percent of teachers in centers — which includes state-funded Preschool for All and federally funded Head Start programs — had some form of college education. About three-quarters had at least an associate’s degree and just under half had a degree in early childhood education or child development.

Federal grant sparking change

While some early childhood educators begin their careers at four-year colleges, seeking a bachelor’s or master’s degree and a teaching license, many, like Irizarry, begin by getting an associate’s degree in child development at the community college level or working in the field first and then taking courses here and there.

Raquel Irizarry, a head teacher at Little Einstein's Daycare in Logan Square, says she's incorporated what she's learned in college into her lessons at work.
Raquel Irizarry, a head teacher at Little Einstein’s Daycare in Logan Square, says she’s incorporated what she’s learned in college into her lessons at work.

However, these community college credits often are not accepted by four-year institutions, making it harder for these workers to progress.

Historically, four-year schools have expected students to get their general education requirements out of the way in community college and then take major-specific coursework at the four-year school — not the other way around, notes Christi Chadwick, who oversees workforce development for the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development.

“Right now, just inherent in the system are a lot of bumps and obstacles,” she says.

Illinois colleges have long worked out transfer agreements, but it’s often been “two steps forward and one step back,” Chadwick says. Some faculty came to “dread” working on the agreements because every college felt like it had to fight for its own program.

However, that attitude began to change in early 2014 when a group of community colleges and universities from across the state began working together on transfer issues.

Besides updating or creating transfer agreements, the faculty worked to improve curriculum and advising systems to better meet the needs of students.

The colleges also worked to better incorporate the state’s six-year-old Gateways credentialing system into their early childhood programs. Under that system, students can earn various credentials — ranging from Level 1 to 5 — if they take certain courses and demonstrate mastery of skills. For example, a Level 1 early childhood credential would require about 32 hours of training that covers health, family relations and child development.

The credentials make it easier for four-year schools to accept coursework from two-year schools — since they’re based on a set of established standards — and child care providers that employ staff with the credentials can earn higher ratings from the state.

“We said this wasn’t about courses, it was about competencies,” Chadwick says. “The conversation came to be: ‘How can we help students?’ In the past it was: ‘These are my students, these are yours.’”

Removing obstacles to graduation

While most of the new or updated transfer agreements are still working their way through colleges’ approval processes — which can take months — leaders of the grant initiative see great promise.

For example, some college partners are working on degree-completion programs that will let community college students studying child development do their junior and senior years on the community college campus, so they don’t have to travel to a four-year school.

Others are working to allow for the full transfer of a particular associate’s degree that’s heavy on child development coursework and is usually obtained by students who want to quickly enter the workforce. The new agreement would let students transfer two full years of credits and complete their general education requirements at the four-year school.

It’s ideal for students who want a bachelor’s degree, which can boost pay and workplace ratings, but not a teaching license, which would require more coursework.  Such students often go on to work in federally funded Head Start programs or child care centers.

Chadwick says that allowing such a two-year degree to transfer seems basic, but is actually innovative.

“This could be a huge game-changer,” she says. “It’s a completely different way of thinking about education.”

Toni Potenza, the associate dean at Roosevelt University’s College of Education, worked on such a transfer agreement with City Colleges of Chicago and Harper College in northwest suburban Palatine.

In the past, Potenza says, transfer students with associate’s degrees heavy on child development coursework would end up spending three years, instead of two, getting their bachelor’s degree because of credit loss.

Last year, staff from Roosevelt, Harper and City Colleges’ Harold Washington College looked at the skills their programs offered, relying on the Gateways credentialing system.

“It became apparent we have more in common than not,” Potenza says. “In the past if it didn’t line up exactly, we made you retake it. It doesn’t make sense to be so ungenerous.”

Roosevelt also plans to add courses aimed at transfer students that will focus on infants and toddlers, child advocacy and working in multicultural classrooms.

Catherine Main, who coordinates the early childhood education program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, worked on a similar initiative with City Colleges. UIC created a new bachelor’s degree in human development and learning that accepts many of the child development courses students can take at the community college level. The new degree program began this fall with about 40 students.

Administrators at other colleges say now that these schools have paved the way, they may be able to offer similar options in the future.

From competition to collaboration

Faculty members say the federal grant also led some Chicago-area institutions — four universities and eight community colleges — to form a consortium that met periodically to discuss shared issues, such as teacher-licensing changes.

“We think we’re competitors in the marketplace, but the reality is we’re not,” says Marie Donovan, as associate professor of education at DePaul University who helped come up with the idea for the consortium. “We learned so much about how to work with each other and trust each other and rely on each other more than we used to.”

Several employees of Little Einstein's Daycare in Logan Square are taking community college courses to further their education.
Several employees of Little Einstein’s Daycare in Logan Square are taking community college courses to further their education.

For example, Prairie State College in south suburban Chicago Heights worked with Governors State University to ensure that the digital portfolios aspiring teachers compiled at Prairie State would transfer to Governors State.

Moraine Valley Community College in southwest suburban Palos Hills worked with its school’s partner, St. Xavier University, to update the community college’s courses to meet new early childhood learning standards and added some new courses so Moraine Valley could offer more Gateways credentials.

It was tedious work that began in January so new courses could be offered this fall.

“We’d go over every single syllabus,” says Aileen Donnersberger, who chairs the social science department at Moraine Valley.

Improving academic advising

Educators say the grant program also prompted better advising for early childhood education students who have transferred — or plan to transfer — to a four-year college.

Donovan at DePaul says she learned to ask the two-year transfer students in her classroom what community college they attended, so she could address any possible gaps in knowledge, especially involving preparation for the edTPA teacher licensing exam.

“We have to be much more intrusive in advising our transfer students now because of edTPA,” she says. “It takes time to understand. It’s something so big and dramatically different that you have to teach as much the format as the content.”

Sherri Bressman, the assistant director of teacher preparation at National Louis University, says one of the biggest hurdles for her school’s students was passing the proficiency test required for admission to the teacher preparation program or, alternatively, scoring high enough on the ACT or SAT college-entrance exam.

With some of the grant money, NLU did ACT test prep with students at their partner two-year school, Triton College in west suburban River Grove, targeting 40 to 50 students who were getting ready to apply to the four-year school or who’d transferred in but hadn’t yet passed the proficiency test. NLU also bought test prep materials so students could use them at the college’s support center.

“I think this grant made us realize how important it is to connect students to one-on-one tutoring,” says Ayn Keneman, an associate professor of early childhood education at NLU.

Also important, educators say, is making sure college marketing, admissions and advising departments are on the same page so they can provide students with accurate, clear information — especially because early childhood educators can end up in schools, centers or home-based programs, all of which can require different levels of schooling or credentials.

Tiffany Booker, 35, graduated from NLU with a bachelor’s in early childhood education this month after transferring in with an associate’s degree from Daley College, not far from her home in Auburn Gresham.

After Booker graduated high school, she took some college courses, but eventually dropped out. This time around, she and her advisor kept in “constant contact” through email and in-person meetings to review important deadlines and pick her classes.

“Going into a university, it was really important to me to feel I had a support system,” she says. “I was just so motivated, I wanted to take full advantage of those opportunities.”

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at kbelsha@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

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