Central Florida Investments Focus on Early Learning Educators

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Early learning centers across the country are experiencing a staffing crisis. Recruiting and retaining quality early childhood educators, what was already a pre-pandemic challenge, is now the reason many early learning centers have closed entirely. Early learning educators are opting out of the classroom and taking more financially lucrative, albeit entry-level jobs. The result is fewer centers with longer waiting lists.

“Helios Education Foundation is focused on ensuring children have success all along the education continuum; that success starts with high-quality early learning instruction,” said Paul J. Luna, President and CEO, Helios Education Foundation. Two recent investments in Central Florida seek to address challenges that impact the availability of high-quality early learning, particularly within minority communities.

The first of the two investments is in Orange County, Florida. Funding granted to the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County (ELCOC) will support a research and planning project focused on addressing the critical issues of childcare teacher and seat shortages. The childcare teacher shortage has a reverberating impact on children and their lifelong academic success. As measured by the Fall 2021 Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener test, just over half (51%) of children entering kindergarten in Orange County were “kindergarten ready”. Lack of readiness often leads students to fall short of critical benchmarks such as reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade. Without personnel to provide instruction, many centers have reduced class sizes or eliminated classrooms all together. This challenge has led to long wait lists at some centers and outright closure of other centers. Low-income communities have been particularly hard-hit. As a result of the Helios-funded research project, the ELCOC anticipates the creation of a blueprint for systemic and policy solutions that will increase access to early care and education.

In neighboring Osceola county, the Early Learning Coalition of Osceola County (Coalition) is focused on creating an early educator career pathway as a recruitment and retention tool.  With grant funding from Helios, the Early Learning Coalition of Osceola County is addressing the disjointed system of connecting early learning educators to credentials and college coursework that leads to higher wages and high-quality instructional practices. The Coalition seeks to increase the number of Child Development Associate (CDA) credentialed teachers in Osceola County, increase the number of CDA credentialed teachers who enroll in a degree seeking program, and overarchingly, increase awareness of the need for a high-quality early learning workforce. By utilizing resources available through other early learning Coalitions, the Florida Department of Children and Families, and the University of Florida Lastinger Center, a greater number of educators will complete the 120-credit hour requirement for a CDA credential. Through articulation agreements with Valencia College and the University of Central Florida, the Coalition anticipates creation of an education pathway that provides college credit for the CDA credential, facilitating an on-ramp for early learning educators to matriculate toward an associate degree and ultimately a bachelor’s degree. “By providing a pathway to degree completion for early learning educators, the ELC along with Valencia and UCF, are framing the first steps to higher wages for these educators, while increasing the quality of their instruction,” said Kirsten Schmitz Phelps, Director, Student Success Initiatives, Helios Education Foundation.

A high-quality education ecosystem begins in the early learning classroom, yet some early learning centers across Central Florida have closed due to lack of staffing and funding. This disturbing trend not only impacts education outcomes for children but the stability of families. By supporting efforts to identify and address barriers to early educator recruitment and retention, Helios seeks to ensuring more children start their education journey ready for success.