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Early childhood emphasis shifting from non-traditional to traditional students

(Front row, l. to r.: Chaundi Price, Gwen Mooney, Kathleen Jensma, Juanita Rodriguez, Edith Baumgart, Jeannie Gerard. Back row, l. to r.: Tammy Culbertson, Mary Beattie-pro-tem instructor, Kathy Moxley-South-FHS co-director and FHS-ECE coordinator, Kelly Warren-FHS assistant director and field study coordinator, Christi Boyter-academic advisor)

Not long ago, teachers for Head Start programs only needed an associate of applied science in early childhood education or a child development associate (CDA) credential appropriate to the age being served, but in 2007, all that changed. Now, at least 50 percent of Head Start teachers nationwide must hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree—either in early childhood education (ECE) or another discipline combined with coursework equivalent to a major in ECE. There was no grandfather clause for current teachers, which for many meant going back to school or finding different work.

The College of Education (COE) Family and Human Services (FHS) program–Early Childhood Emphasis (FHS–ECE) was designed specifically for them. The hybrid online program can be completed in about two years and was created specifically for working adults. But along the way something interesting happened: A large pool of traditional students is interested in FHS–ECE. An interest in the field of early childhood combined with human services is the primary reason of interest in FHS–ECE for most students. They also find that the online hybrid format allows for more life flexibility; they can work full-time while going to school, care for their children or other family members, or take a minor. Some find it advantageous in other ways—like a student with a hearing impairment who prefers the control afforded by the online format. The unexpected popularity is a pleasant surprise, because increased demand for full-day kindergarten instructors in Oregon and the costs of returning to school pose threats to the recruitment and retention of Head Start teachers.

Head Start is a government-funded program established as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Its purpose is to provide educational, health, nutritional and parental services to low-income children and their families, usually before they enroll in public school.

"Having the early childhood emphasis in the FHS program was a good fit because the FHS mission is social justice, working with very diverse populations, underrepresented populations, and people that are really struggling in our communities," Moxley-South said.

Development of the COE’s online hybrid program began in earnest in 2010, the result of rich collaborations between Former Dean Michael Bullis, regional Head Start representatives, and several COE faculty members with expertise in ECE. The group appointed Moxley-South as coordinator of the new program, who came from Oregon State.

Recruiting the initial cohort was a collaborative effort between Moxley-South, financial aid, and admissions. Mostly it involved getting in a car and meeting face-to-face with potential students, though key players in the Oregon Head Start community were instrumental in promoting the FHS–ECE program to their constituents.

"We put on events in their home communities," Moxley-South said referring to potential recruits. "We tell our own story. Practically everyone in this program, is a non-traditional student, including myself. We sit with a potential student and walk them through the admissions process. We provide an extreme amount of support from the very beginning."

The program’s format helps students balance schoolwork with full-time employment and family responsibilities. They meet weekly online with classmates and a professor, perform most coursework on their own time and meet in-person just twice per term. Obaworld, learning management software created by the COE’s Global and Online Education group, provides an easy-to-use platform.

"It’s very interactive," Moxley-South said. "You can create a sense of online community through discussion boards and virtual tools, as well as the approximately 28 hours they spend together during the weekend classes."

Tuition runs about $15,000—less than many might expect, but still a barrier for some. These costs are being addressed, in part, through individual development accounts—savings plans designated for purposes such as postsecondary education that include matching funds from government sources. Some teachers also have access to professional development funds from their Head Start organizations.

Twelve students from all over Oregon became the first FHS–ECE cohort during fall 2013. Among them was Chaundi Barboza, then a Head Start manager in Madras, Oregon.

"There’s so much support from the faculty that you can’t not be successful," she said. "They encourage you the whole time. My second year, I had a lot of personal things that came up, and they were in communication with me; they met with me to make a plan. They understand that your family comes first."

Chaundi’s experience led to a career shift. In August she began a new position at Family Access Network, a program shared by several school districts in central Oregon that focuses on homeless youth.

Recent graduates echo Chaundi’s sentiments, noting that the program is designed to ensure their success and that the degree boosted their confidence while opening up new career options in ECE. Many are considering graduate school.

By 2014, 67 percent of Head Start teachers had completed the required degree. This, combined with a lack of federal funding to support the mandate, means that about half of the 16 students in the 2017 FHS–ECE cohort are traditional and almost all of the 2018 cohort are traditional students. Many come from community colleges that offer an associate’s degree in ECE, for whom the program is an excellent fit.

"While recruitment is still ongoing with Head Start and we expect to see an increase in Head Start applicants for the 2019 cohort, we are also recruiting from community colleges that have early childhood programs, and from the UO, especially those students that are working at our campus early childhood centers,” said Moxley-South. "They have a passion for working with young children and their families. Many of them want to go on to graduate school for education, counseling, or social work. An especially good fit for students graduating from FHS–ECE is the Special Education Early Intervention program. Our curriculum was designed with the input of faculty from SPED/EI and is an excellent foundation for knowledge and skills for the EI master’s degree program."