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Teachers earn tuition-free degrees, help prepare preschoolers

Scholarship program proves value as first graduate guides children’s learning

Cindy Nelson is dedicated to her career as an early childhood educator. A consummate professional, she works daily to give Columbus children quality learning experiences.

Today, she also is the first graduate of the college’s Early Childhood Education Professional Preparation Pipeline program. Her newly minted bachelor’s diploma, courtesy of the program’s full-tuition scholarship, earned her a promotion to assistant director at Creative Child Care – Southeast Center.

“Society hasn’t associated early childhood education with advanced training,” said Bryan Warnick, professor and associate dean of curriculum for the college, “so we’re trying to infuse Columbus with a set of people with bachelor’s degrees. We want to elevate how people see the profession.

“As we strengthen early childhood education, we’re also helping people advance their career prospects and strengthening communities.”

Created in 2016 by Ohio State President Michael V. Drake and the college, the pipeline program currently has 40 students. It offers free tuition for those with an associate’s degree who are committed to teaching early childhood education in Franklin County.

Without this support, Nelson’s achievement might have been impossible.

Increasing earning power, learning power

Nelson lost her father when she was 11, which left her and her mother struggling. Her mom often picked up an extra third shift to make ends meet. But eventually, back trouble forced her to seek government disability benefits, making funds for Nelson’s college nonexistent.

With her mother’s encouragement, Nelson earned an associate’s degree using a scholarship for students in need. She also worked at a low-wage, fast food job up to 24 hours on weekends. “It was difficult to juggle work and school, but I wanted to make it happen,” she said.

Eight years later, she was eager to learn more to benefit children in her care. But the cost of going back to college was prohibitive. Until she discovered the pipeline program.

Laurie Katz, professor of early childhood education and director of the program, emphasized how the ultimate goal of the program is to give Franklin County children a quality start in life and school.

“By increasing (the teachers’) expertise, they are even more skilled at working with children to make sure they start kindergarten ready to learn,” she said.

“I worked full time and over time as well, and was able to complete my BS by going to evening and summer classes,” Nelson said. “I am grateful to everyone who supported me along the way, including my company.”

Opening locked doors

“What we are doing for these students is opening a door that would otherwise be shut and locked,” Warnick said. The pipeline students all work as teachers at early childhood education centers. “Working full time in a day care or preschool does not usually offer the resources needed to complete a four-year degree,” he added.

More degreed professionals at centers translates into more points in Ohio’s Step Up to Quality system. High ratings in the five-star system are increasingly important as city and county governments require quality before granting tuition assistance to children from low-income families.

“The issue is, all Ohio (early childhood education) centers must be rated in Step Up to Quality by 2020 to continue to receive public funds,” said Rhonda Johnson, ‘78 MA, director of education for the city of Columbus. “Columbus does business only with high-quality providers, rated at least three out of five stars, so our children are ready for kindergarten.”

Warnick described the pipeline program as one stepping stone, among others created by the college, the city and other partners in Ohio, to help centers achieve the standing necessary to receive public funds for children’s tuition.

The hallmark of quality practice

The experience Nelson gained improves her value to her center, but especially to the children and teachers she supports. In autumn 2017 at the Creative Child Care – West Center, she taught four children who spoke almost no English.

“They were four and five, one year before kindergarten, and they only knew toddler-level English like ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’” she said.

As a lead teacher, Nelson had taught many like them, but that year was different. As the capstone course for her Pipeline degree, Nelson did a yearlong field experience.

The course was led by Deb Zurmehly, program manager for the bachelor’s in Child and Youth Studies and the master’s in Early Childhood Education, who had the class of current and aspiring preschool teachers conduct classroom.

“Practitioners do research to grow professionally,” she said. “When they can carve out time to be reflective on their own practice, it helps them, it helps the learner. It’s really a hallmark of quality practice.”

Nelson was interested in how her classroom’s dramatic play area facilitated social connections and language skills for her four students. As part of her research project, she gathered substantial data on the children throughout the year and used it, along with their input, to plan activities to support their learning.

“By looking at the assessments, I was so much more aware of how I contributed to their growth,” Nelson said. “By the end of the year, they were speaking fluid English and ready to navigate the world of school. I had a huge impact.”

With the ability to succeed alongside with their peers, Nelson’s students have the potential to provide the innovation needed in the future to solve societal problems and improve our world.