Teacher's aide Claudia Galvez plays the bilingual version of a word-building game with a preschool student at the Guadalupano Family Center in Pilsen earlier this month. Credit: Photo by Max Herman

Claudia Galvez’s path to becoming an early childhood educator began when her own children, now 6 and 11, were born. Galvez, 29, of Brighton Park, was fascinated by child development and wanted to help her kids — and others — learn.

Five years ago she got a job at Chicago Commons’ Guadalupano Family Center in Pilsen, the same center where her son attended preschool. She worked her way up to a position as a bilingual teacher’s aide and took child development courses part time at Daley College.

Now, just three more courses will bring Galvez an associate’s degree and eligibility for a raise and promotion. Then she plans to look for a bachelor’s degree program so she can work toward a preschool teaching license with a bilingual credential.

“I don’t care if I’m 60 years old,” she says, “I’m going to finish.”

Preschool teachers-in-training like Galvez are joining the field at a time of immense change.

In recent years, early education in Illinois has become more exacting, with a more highly trained workforce.

In 2013, the state won a four-year, $52.5 million grant through the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge that helped usher in new early learning standards that align with the more challenging K-12 Common Core State Standards and a new rating system that helps parents evaluate preschool quality.

Early childhood educators are being encouraged to obtain standardized credentials that show they’ve mastered important skills, and colleges and universities are increasingly recognizing their credentials — helping early educators move up the higher-education ladder more quickly.

And last year, Illinois won a federal preschool expansion grant — worth $20 million in the first year, with the potential for three more years at that level if the state comes through with matching funds.

Catalyst has reported that the state pledged in its original proposal to the federal government to increase its spending on early childhood education programs by $50 million a year through 2020 — until annual spending reached $250 million. That would extend early childhood education to just under an additional 14,000 preschoolers by 2018, the state said.

But before that influx of temporary federal funding, advocates had expressed grave concern about a drop off in state spending on preschool. A 2014 report from Voices for Illinois Children pointed out that state funding for Preschool for All, which serves disadvantaged 3- to 5-year-olds, was cut by a quarter from 2009 to 2014, and enrollment dropped by more than a third to 70,000 during that span of time.

The state kept funding level for early education in its 2015 budget and raised it by about 11 percent for 2016, or about $32 million, but it’s unclear whether that spending will continue to trend upward when the federal money runs out — and whether Illinois will invest enough to return to previous state funding levels that advocates say would be needed to close gaping disparities in access to preschool in Illinois.

Federal funding jumpstarts efforts

Potential teachers like Galvez have benefitted significantly from the federal Race to the Top funding, which aims to boost the number of early educators qualified to teach English-learners and help more high-need children attend at least a year of quality education before kindergarten.

For example, Galvez’s last few semesters were paid for almost entirely by a scholarship that helps early childhood educators further their education — and the federal money allowed the state to expand that program. Without the scholarship, Galvez says she likely wouldn’t have been able to attend school continuously.

“Sometimes they’ve been saving my life about staying in school,” she says.

Teacher's aide Claudia Galvez works with preschool students on counting blocks at the Guadalupano Family Center in Pilsen earlier this month.
Teacher’s aide Claudia Galvez works with preschool students on counting blocks at the Guadalupano Family Center in Pilsen earlier this month.

The scholarship has benefitted some 840 to 930 educators annually across Illinois, but only a fraction, fewer than 40, get a degree each year, since many students are taking courses part-time.

It’s slow going but it’s one of a few key strategies Illinois developed to increase the number of early childhood educators, especially those who are trained to work in the high-need area of bilingual education. Another approach was to form cohorts of early childhood educators to take coursework together.

In 2013, the first year of the federal grant, 226 educators obtained a license to teach early childhood education with a credential to teach English-learners — adding to the 1,525 teachers across the state who had those same qualifications.

Money also was directed to Illinois universities and community colleges so they could work together to improve their early childhood teacher prep programs, notably by adding or updating coursework in bilingual education, special education and early math to make it more likely that new teachers would come out trained in those areas.

Christi Chadwick, who oversees workforce development for the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, says the colleges looked at how they could include coursework in early education programs that would lead to credentials teaching English-learners beginning at the community college level, where many early childhood educators get their start. In the past, many students weren’t exposed to such classes until they reached a four-year program.

For example, Loyola University Chicago worked with the City Colleges of Chicago on an agreement that will allow community college graduates to transfer into Loyola’s early childhood special education program, which also builds in an English as a Second Language (ESL) credential. And Southern Illinois University Carbondale is working with four community colleges to develop courses to help students get an ESL credential — aimed at accommodating a growing English-learner population downstate.

Meeting demand for a critical need

About 9 percent of Illinois children from birth to kindergarten are working to master English, according to recent state records. In Chicago Public Schools last year, a third of the district’s just under 23,000 preschool students were learning English.

And among CPS students in the state’s preschool program for needy children the rate is even higher: 45 percent were English-learners in 2014, the Latino Policy Forum found.

Those young English-learners are mostly concentrated on the city’s Northwest and Southwest Sides of the city — the same areas that Voices for Illinois Children found had the lowest preschool participation rates in Cook County, at 46 percent. If more children were going to preschool in these areas, the need for bilingual teachers would likely be even higher.

The state’s Preschool for All program is mandated to meet the same bilingual education requirements as K-12 schools — meaning native language support has to be offered where there are 20 or more English-learners who speak the same language. And starting next summer, preschool teachers who work with English-learners in a school district must hold the proper credentials to do so.

The state pushed back the start date for the English-learner credentialing requirement by two years after districts had trouble finding enough qualified staff.

But Cristina Pacione-Zayas, the education director at the Latino Policy Forum, says despite that extra time, “there is no way” districts will be fully ready by the summer.

“The problem is this: It’s a moving target in terms of staffing because the number of students who are enrolling is in flux,” she says.

Advocates who met with CPS officials earlier this year to discuss bilingual preschool staffing needs say the district expects its school-based preschool programs will be about 85 percent in compliance with the bilingual-credential requirements — but only about a quarter of the district’s some 200 community-based programs are expected to meet the mandate. (CPS did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Increasing bilingual preschool teachers

A 2012 survey of staff at 354 Illinois preschools — about 60 percent of all the state’s programs for needy students — showed that despite the fact many staff in preschool centers are fluent in two languages, there are two major barriers that prevent them from getting credentials to work with English-learners: lack of time and cost.

Pacione-Zayas says to keep the pipeline flowing with early childhood educators who are equipped to work with English-learners, the state should continue to fund scholarships for current preschool teachers and improve support for educators who have language skills but need more training to get teaching licenses and credentials that demonstrate they are bilingual.

She’d like to see more efforts to bring college professors to communities — especially those in need of bilingual teachers — instead of asking students to travel far to get to school. (Catalyst recently wrote about the consolidation of the City Colleges child development program that will be housed at one North Side college starting next year — a move that’s raised concerns about access among faculty members and other education advocates.)

Registry data from the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, a statewide organization also known as INCCRRA, shows Chicago has a sizable population of early childhood educators who are already bilingual — and could gain access to higher pay and more workplace options if they received more schooling.

According to March data about workers in state-licensed child care centers — which have lower educational requirements than CPS preschool programs — about 31 percent of teachers and 40 percent of teacher’s assistants in Chicago speak English and another language. Across the state it’s 17 percent of teachers and 24 percent of teacher’s assistants. (The data included some 35,300 child care workers in the state and 7,200 in Chicago.)

Claudia Galvez
Teacher’s aide Claudia Galvez helps preschool students with educational games at the Guadalupano Family Center in Pilsen earlier this month.

Blending coursework with fieldwork

As teacher prep programs across the state are revamped to meet the new early learning standards and to prepare students for a new teaching-licensing exam, many schools also are making changes to better expose would-be teachers to specialties that are in high demand.

For example, Loyola launched an early childhood education degree program a few years ago that’s heavy on fieldwork and requires all students to spend a significant amount of time working with special-needs students and English-learners before they get their bachelor’s degree.

The program was designed with projected staffing shortages in mind, says Adam Kennedy, an assistant professor who heads the program, and is based on the notion of “apprenticeship,” so students get frequent feedback from faculty.

“I think that all programs should be blended and everyone should be prepared to work in an inclusive environment,” Kennedy says. “We wanted the candidates to have exposure to general education and special education and everything in between so they felt informed and much clearer in their decision-making in choosing a major.”

About 6 percent of Illinois children from birth to kindergarten have a disability or developmental delay, according to recent state records, and about 11 percent of CPS preschoolers had special needs last year.

Teaching candidates also work with students from birth to 12th grade so they can figure out if they want to go into early, elementary or secondary education.

In an effort to expand access to the program, Kennedy has been working with Jennifer Asimow at Harold Washington College to pave a pathway for City Colleges students who’ve taken certain child development coursework to transfer into Loyola’s early childhood special education program. The effort is being funded with Race to the Top money.

The colleges are hoping to have the first set of City Colleges students transfer in fall 2016. Funding from a separate five-year, nearly $1.3 million federal grant will give them scholarships that cover at least a full year of Loyola tuition.

Kennedy says Loyola will offer test prep to help the community college students score high enough on an entrance exam to get into Loyola’s teaching program and Loyola will run a summer bridge program to prepare the transfer students.

The federal money also gives scholarships to Loyola students in the program, who can qualify for up to two years of free tuition, totaling about $40,000.

Hira Wahidi, a 22-year-old Skokie resident and senior at Loyola, is one of the students who’s benefitted from the scholarship, which requires that she work with students with special needs for four years. She says because the program emphasizes fieldwork from the start, students like her can see more quickly whether the career is a good fit.

“I didn’t really have that much intensive learning and exposure to [students with special needs] and so I don’t think I would ever have considered being a special education teacher,” she says. “But being in the program, you get a good sense of what it’s actually like.”

The program is small — about 25 students — but Kennedy hopes it will grow. A high percentage of students go on to work in the field, he notes, with the flexibility to work in a variety of settings, from early intervention programs to preschools.

Bringing math into the equation

A handful of colleges across Illinois have used the federal Race to the Top funding over the last two years to expand their early math offerings — which historically have been lacking.

Jie-Qi Chen, a principal investigator at the Erikson Institute’s Early Math Collaborative and a professor of child development, says the topic came into focus back in 2007 when CPS asked her to survey some 340 preschool teachers about their math skills.

Chen found that many teachers didn’t feel comfortable with math but thought they could teach early math skills. Teachers lacked foundational concepts — such as being able to identify mathematical patterns — and “overwhelmingly” wanted more training, Chen says.

After that, Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative was born, with funding from the McCormick Foundation and CME Group Foundation.

Since then, Chen has worked in CPS to train preschool teachers as well as facilitators who go on to train CPS teachers. However, dedicated math coaches were eventually cut due to district budget constraints.

To improve, early childhood teachers often have to ditch the “rote memory” approach their teachers took with them when they were young.

“Many of them told me that the reason I’m coming to teach early childhood is to avoid math,” Chen says. “That kind of attitude or belief needs to change.”

But up until now, few college programs offered extensive exposure to early math skills.

An Erikson Institute survey from 2012 found that nearly a quarter of Illinois community colleges offered no early math methods coursework and just 2 percent had courses that focused solely on early math. At the time, no early math professional development or teacher prep programs existed outside Chicago.

With help from the Race to the Top funding, Southern Illinois University Carbondale is now working with Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative to train faculty in early math, while the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently worked with a local community college to develop early math units and new courses aimed at pre-service early childhood teachers.

In the Chicago area, National Louis University offers an early math concentration, but Chen says: “Overall our higher education hasn’t done enough… Lots of schools have a math methods class, but the amount of time given to math methods is significantly smaller than reading methods.”

And for early educators who work in centers instead of schools, access to professional development, especially in early math for extended periods of time, is much harder to come by.

With funding from CME Group Foundation, Erikson is now working with Early Head Start child-care centers and home visitors in Chicago to provide early math training.

But Chen says that in contrast to CPS teachers, center-based staff usually can’t get substitutes to cover their classes during the day, so training has to be done on weekends.

“That’s hard, but these people are so, so happy they finally get this chance,” she says.

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

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