It wasn’t easy to juggle college coursework, a full-time job as an early childhood educator, and being a single mom, but it enabled Jamillah Meekins to become director of Brightside Academy in West Philadelphia last year. Taking advantage of opportunities for continuing education through the West Philadelphia Child Care Network and Community College of Philadelphia, she has been able to move up in her profession.
“You think anybody could teach a preschooler, but I learned about brain development and about how children learn,” said Meekins, a mother of two, who made changes to her classroom after earning a Child Development Associate certificate (CDA) in 2004. “It worked. I saw the difference.”
Meekins, 33, is one of many local early childhood teachers blazing a path that hundreds more will have to follow.
Due to changes in state and federal requirements, by 2011 over 1,000 early educators in Philadelphia must obtain a degree or certificate in early childhood education (ECE) in order to retain their positions.
Every lead teacher in Pre-K Counts, the state-funded preschool program which operates through the District, will be required to have state certification and a bachelor’s degree in ECE.
Child care centers participating in Keystone STARS, Pennsylvania’s quality-rating and improvement program, will also be required to meet certification criteria to maintain their STAR ratings. By July 2010, lead teachers will be required to hold an associate’s degree in ECE to teach in STAR 3 programs and a bachelor’s in ECE to teach in STAR 4 programs. Teacher’s aides will need a CDA certificate and an associate’s degree.
“It’s exactly what is needed. It’s right for kids [and] it’s good for the field,” said Sharon Easterling, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC), a staff development organization.
The new requirements have far-reaching effects and have gained widespread support, as research shows the link between teacher qualifications and success among kids in school and in life. Many hope that increasing professional credentials will also boost teacher pay. The average annual salary in the state in 2002 was just $17,402.
Despite its benefits, Easterling said that coordinating a large-scale credentials upgrade presents “a major challenge.”
To meet this challenge and support teachers, DVAEYC has created a new branch of its organization geared towards career advising. Since the project’s inception nearly three years ago, the career advisors have counseled approximately 500 Pre-K Counts teachers – 200 who are now enrolled in higher education.
Some fear that despite efforts to create a support network, highly skilled teachers may fall through the cracks, particularly teachers outside of Pre-K Counts.
“It’s really all about the teacher, and we need to honor this current workforce,” said Suzanne O’Connor, manager of United Way’s Success by 6® program. “There are a lot of great [people] out there who need to be supported.”
Particularly frustrating for early educators are some colleges’ core requirements that have little relevance to their daily work – classes such as math, world history, or chemistry. Many worry that these courses may cause people to leave the field.
“You have a teacher who perhaps has not been in school for a very long time [so] there’s a lot of anxiety around this issue,” said Debra Lawrence, executive director of the Southeast Regional Key.
But the state’s policies are fair, she added.
“The state has not been unreasonable in understanding that some folks can’t access higher education, but they also understand that we can’t allow just anyone to work with small children,” she said. “This is no longer a vocation; it’s a profession.”
Meekins earned her CDA certificate and an associate’s degree with the help of the T.E.A.C.H. (Teacher Education and Compensation Helps) scholarship program. Scholarships are available to teachers pursuing a degree or certificate in early childhood education. They cover 80 percent of tuition costs at partner colleges, as well as expenses such as transportation and books.
As hundreds of educators take advantage of the scholarships to return to school, critics are urging policymakers to closely examine the coursework to ensure that the requirements serve their intended purpose. Many suggest that higher education is lagging behind developments in the field and point to a lack of standards across different schools.
“My hope is that all the early childhood programs in the area try to do this effectively, but there are definitely weaker programs,” said Cindy Kennedy Reedy, director of early childhood programs at Arcadia University.
Reedy added that schools that did not previously offer early childhood degrees may be struggling to deliver the content. “That’s not a quick add-on,” she said.
One option may be partnering with expert community-based professional development organizations, as St. Joseph’s has done with the Institute for Family Professionals, to offer early childhood-specific coursework.
Arcadia has also been creative in attracting early educators who have been out of school a while by offering cohort-based courses off-campus at child care centers and YMCAs.
“When you get with a like-minded group, it’s much more supportive and less threatening,” said Reedy.
Now helping her staff at Brightside to navigate the higher education system, Meekins agrees that peer support is critical.
“We are working together [and] pulling each other up,” she said. “Everyone is pretty much on a positive note.”
For information on the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Pennslyvania Scholarship Program, go to www.pacca.org/teach or call 877-51-TEACH