Early education

One answer to Illinois’ dire preschool teacher shortage: men

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Child Care Society
Lee Tate is a master's level teacher who is popular among students at a Chicago Child Care Society in Hyde Park.

Giving a brief tour of her Hyde Park childcare center on a cold recent morning, Chicago Child Care Society CEO Dara Munson stops by a classroom where a dozen or so small children are lined up in parkas, mittens, and winter hats. Like a line of colorful padded ducks, they eagerly trail one of the lead teachers — a tall man named Lee Tate — out toward the playground.

“They love him,” Munson whispered.

Across town a few weeks later, Dexter Smith, the director of the Truman College Child Development Lab School, describes with similar enthusiasm the way children at his center embraced a part-time male staffer. When that employee left the three-classroom center to pursue a full-time job at a private preschool, his staff was again all-female, with one notable exception: himself.

“Men interact differently with children, they can be more playful, more interactive, more willing to tumble them upside down,” he said. “Women don’t typically do that.”

Turnover, shortages, low pay: Advocates, daycare owners, and educators have sounded alarm bells lately over the dire preschool teacher shortage in Illinois — an issue that’s growing ever more critical in the wake of outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push for universal pre-K. The challenges of low wages, burnout, and churn have become persistent impediments to full staffing.

Related: One business owner’s view from the child care trenches in Illinois

Perhaps one overlooked solution: men — particularly men of color. In Illinois, women predominantly make up the early education workforce, with men counting for fewer than 2 percent of licensed teachers in certified childcare centers and only 20 percent of teaching assistants, according to a 2017 report from the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

That percentage drops even more dramatically when you consider men of color in classrooms, said Shawn Jackson, a former science teacher and elementary school principal in Chicago Public Schools who now runs Harry S. Truman, one of the city’s seven community colleges.  “When I started thinking about how we can find ways to encourage more men of color to get into classrooms, I thought about the lack of tangible role models who are there every day.”

These observations, coupled with forecasts of how many teachers will be needed in the future to power schools in the Chicago area and beyond, have helped fuel a “Men of Color” teacher training program.

Besides aiding classrooms, the program also addresses a dire need for training and jobs. A startling 47 percent of black men ages 20 to 24 in Chicago were out of school and out of work in 2014, according to a report from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute that has had widespread policy repercussions.

A group of educators led by Jackson created the “Men of Color” program, which combines coursework toward a certificate or two-year-degree, mentoring, and paid internships. Jackson helped recruit 15 male Chicago principals and teachers to serve as mentors — a key tenet of the program.

“If you’ve ever seen a man of color walk into an early childhood classroom, he’s a superstar,” said Jackson, who is building three paths for potential teachers. For high schoolers, a dual-credit program offers simultaneous credit toward graduation and a two-year degree. For city college students and community members, the city offers a scholarship for prospective early educators, drawn from a mayor’s office fund expected to double to $4 million this year.

The Men of Color program isn’t solely focused on early childhood education — there are tracks, too, for elementary and high school. But in the first Men of Color pilot of 33 students, 23 have signed up for the early education program.

That’s encouraging news for Kate Connor, Truman College’s recently appointed vice president.

“We’re training a huge part of the early childhood workforce,” said Connor, who described a strong system of “on- and off-ramps” that help nudge students toward completion. (Like community colleges across the country, Chicago City Colleges has struggled with low completion rates; the system reported 22 percent completion in 2018.)

“Rarely does someone come in without some experience in the field — they’ve cared for kids in their home or cared for family members,” she said. If Connor, who has taught in the early education division, and her team can get them to take one class, and help address “confidence challenges,” she said, “we can start getting them invested.”

Getting them invested means more than coursework: The Truman team plan to ease students along with paid internships, support with basics such as English and math for those whose skills are weak, financial assistance, and, for students like Billy Hubbert who want to “go all the way” — that is, gain entrance into a four-year-degree program, which can be a roadblock to many students seeking full credentialing in Illinois — ACT prep.

The Hirsch High School graduate, 43, had been driving Lyft and working in a private child care center as a substitute. He said he’s not deterred by the potential of low pay that tends to be a constant in early education — nor that his early education courses have been predominantly female.

“I can count on one hand the number of male teachers I had growing up — mainly gym teachers and coaches  — and there are a lot of women in the courses I’m taking now,” he said. “The program helps me feel like I’m not in a silo. I’m not all by myself.”

all aboard

Colorado’s top education officials support Gov. Polis’ full-day kindergarten proposal

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The Colorado State Board of Education has put its support behind a proposal for the state to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten.

Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on this plan, and earlier this week, he announced that he could pay for it without cutting other programs because local property taxes are bringing in more revenue, freeing up money at the state level.

In a press release, the State Board of Education, made up of four Democrats and three Republicans, said it had adopted a resolution in support of that plan.

“We know that high-quality kindergarten programs can help us close opportunity and achievement gaps and ensure that all students have a strong foundation for success throughout their school years,” board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said in the release.

Vice Chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said leveraging the strong economy to pay for kindergarten is the right approach.

“The proposal doesn’t create a new mandate for districts or for parents, but it enables districts to offer free, full-day kindergarten for all, and it will help ensure all students are on the path to success,” Durham said.

Right now, about 50,000 students attend full-day programs and another 13,000 attend half-day programs. Many districts charge tuition for the extra half-day — the governor’s office estimates at least 30,000 families pay hundreds of dollars a month, though the state education department doesn’t track this — while others use a combination of federal money for high-poverty schools, state funds to support early literacy, dedicated local taxes, and their own operating funds to cover the cost.

When Polis announced the plan, key Democratic lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee raised concerns about using so much additional revenue for kindergarten when there are other needs, particularly transportation. Polis estimates paying for kindergarten will cost an additional $227 million a year, plus a one-time $25 million expenditure for implementation costs such as  curriculum and supplies.

“The governor’s budget doesn’t really touch on transportation, for example,” Joint Budget Committee Chairman Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, told The Denver Post. “And that’s something we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents — that they are tired of sitting in traffic. They want better infrastructure.”

But on Wednesday, when Polis formally presented his budget requests to the committee, those same lawmaker asked no questions and later issued official statements that indicated support for kindergarten, even as they included a few caveats about long-term fiscal responsibility.

“After meeting with Gov. Polis to learn more about his budget proposal, I believe his ideas are a solid blueprint which we can build upon for our next budget,” Moreno said in a press release.  “I look forward to continued conversations between the JBC and the governor to see how we can best fulfill these requests and fund these programs in the long-term.”

Early Education 101

Here’s how Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids advocates are trying to put early childhood education on the state policy agenda in Lansing

PHOTO: Getty Images

With scores of new Michigan lawmakers sworn in this month, and new leadership taking shape in Lansing, parents and advocates from across the state are ramping up efforts to put the needs of the state’s youngest children on the political agenda.

Parents from Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids plan to converge on the capitol next week for an “Early Education 101” session with lawmakers that organizers say is the first significant early-childhood event to be held in the capitol in about a decade.

“We decided to do this together so that we can speak with a collective voice,” said Denise Smith, who heads the Flint early childhood collaborative and runs an early childhood center called Educare Flint. “These are not just Detroit or Flint concerns.”

Organized advocacy like this has long been common in Michigan when it comes to K-12 education. Lansing veterans are used to seeing busloads of parents arrive to push for funding or policy changes. But early childhood education advocates haven’t invested the resources to organize events like these in recent years.

Advocates hope that next week’s event will to put the needs of young children and their parents on the radar of lawmakers  as the process for thinking about policy and budget priorities for the upcoming legislative session begins.

Among major concerns for parents across the state is a third-grade reading law that, starting next year, will require schools to hold back students who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade.

Elementary schools have been working to ramp up their reading instruction, but advocates say the work has to begin much earlier, starting with getting children ready for school when they’re babies or toddlers.

“We need to have the resources and the other investments in early childhood so we can insure that fewer children will be retained,” Smith said.

One of the efforts behind the event is the Hope Starts Here initiative in Detroit, which is a $50 million campaign led by the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here).

Hope Starts Here has brought parents, advocates, educators, and others together in Detroit to set priorities, such as making early childhood programs more affordable, improving their quality and expanding their reach.

“We have a lot of momentum right now,” said Camarrah Morgan, who is helping to lead community engagement and advocacy efforts for Hope Starts Here.

It’s not just parents and educators pushing the cause, she said. “We have corporate partners at the state level who are advocating for child care because they’re trying to recruit and retain workers … This is about helping policymakers understand why childcare is important.”

Organizers say that 165 lawmakers or members of their staffs have signed up for the Jan. 22 “lunch and learn” event in Lansing, including new and returning officials. There also will be 75 parents from across the state.

The parents will be learning too, said Felicia Cash, a parent and community advocate from Detroit’s east side who plans to participate.

“Success would be the parents being fired up once we come back,” Cash said. “It can’t just be a one-time event. We have to have the energy and the perseverance to continue lobbying, to continue writing, to continue having town hall meetings here in the city, to return back to Lansing. This is our voices being lifted up, our voices being taken seriously.”