Improving Early Childhood Education in Pinellas County
Author: Helios Education FoundationFebruary 2, 2021
At Helios Education Foundation, we believe becoming a lifelong learner and successful in postsecondary education is rooted in having an enriching, foundational early learning experience. A strong and healthy beginning to a child’s life can help ensure they not only graduate from high school but also increases the likelihood they will continue to pursue postsecondary education.
We also know an enriching learning experience is best-provided by qualified early learning professionals. That is why investing in early childhood education must not only include investments into early childhood programming, but also into professional development for educators in the early learning space.
To increase the quality of early childhood education in the Tampa Bay Area, Helios Education Foundation partnered with the University of Florida Lastinger Center to create the Leadership for Early Educators in Pinellas (LEEP) program. The Program’s goals are to build the instructional leadership capacity within early childhood programs; educate, build skills, and professionalize early childhood teachers; enhance and further standardize a culture of early childhood coaches across Pinellas County; and develop sustainable and system-wide model for capacity-building within the Pinellas Early Learning Coalition (ELC). “Ensuring all children connect their potential to possibilities starts early in their education journey,” said Paul J. Luna, President and CEO, Helios Education Foundation. “We are excited to see this initiative connect educators to professional development resources that will help them ensure more children are kindergarten ready,” concluded Luna.
The Program offers a customized, multi-tiered approach to address the unique early childhood education and quality improvement priorities necessary in Pinellas County. LEEP does this in three different ways: 1) providing leadership training for Pinellas County providers and professionals through its Instructional Leadership Development for Program Leaders; 2) creating a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential pathway for a cohort of preschool teachers; 3) creating a Coaching Fellowship.
Instructional Leadership Development for Program Leaders
Directors participating in this initiative, which has been running since spring 2019, have formed a strong peer group of early childhood leaders who partner together to explore their practice and learn from one another. This diverse group of new and seasoned professionals openly discuss their successes and challenges in working with young children and their families. Participants shared their participation has allowed them to feel part of an established community and, no longer in isolation and disconnected from other directors. One program leader said this was the first time she was able to stop putting out fires, sit down, and have a meaningful conversation with other adults in months.
To be eligible to receive state funding, state-licensed early learning centers must have adequately-prepared staff. A private prekindergarten provider must have, for each prekindergarten class, at least one prekindergarten instructor who holds minimum education requirements. Among these requirements is the Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credential.
Twenty preschool teachers are currently pursuing their CDA credential through the LEEP program by completing six online Early Learning Florida courses, and an additional 15 pre-k teachers are renewing their CDA credential. An additional 15 early childhood professionals are completing the Director Credential 45-hour coursework requirement necessary to meet Florida requirements for becoming an early childhood program director.
"How early childhood educators and leaders see themselves impacts their ability to be effective in their work with children and families. The topic of professionalism and leadership is frequently cited in the literature as a barrier to quality care in early childcare and education settings,”. said Liza Leonard, UF Lastinger Center for Learning, Early Learning Specialist and LEEP Project Lead. “Many early childhood professionals struggle to see themselves as leaders and professionals. The biggest impact we have observed from this project relates to the ability of the directors and teachers involved in LEEP to see themselves as professional educators. This shift leads to a greater investment in learning and improvement in the quality of care and education provided for children,” concluded Leonard.
Six Lastinger certified coaches are currently engaged in the Coaching Fellowship program, attending monthly meetings, engaging in an online coaching group on the Flamingo Learning Platform, and mentoring four new coaches who are completing their Lastinger Online Coaching Certification program. The Lastinger Center team also created a virtual resource toolkit that support virtual coaching, empowering the coaches and fueling their efforts to continue providing valuable support. By building strong internal capacity within the ELC coach cadre, the LEEP model will be sustainable beyond the end of this initial project, which ends in June.
“We are very impressed with the results the partnership between the UF Lastinger Center and the Pinellas Early Learning Coalition is having. Creating a culture of professionalism, continued education, and professional support is helping early childhood educators,’ said Kirsten Schmitz, Director, Student Success Initiatives. “The positive impact LEEP will have on the Pinellas County Early Learning Coalition, and most importantly early childhood students, is something we hope will continue into the future.”