“The feel-good is great, but the real feel-good is doing something that lasts longer than the duration of this grant funding.”
That is what Alex Beck, Welcoming Communities Manager for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), told me toward the end of our conversation about BDCC’s successful 2023 pilot program to train New Vermonters in the Brattleboro area to become early childhood educators. (“New Vermonters” is an inclusive term for Vermonters with and without permanent status in the United States, including asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, and those seeking humanitarian parole.) The program was funded by a Building Bright Futures (BBF) Vermont Early Childhood Fund (VECF) grant. It was developed in partnership with Windham County’s Child Care Counts Coalition and relied on the support of a wide array of other southern Vermont partners.
One common pathway to becoming an early childhood educator in Vermont involves taking a 45-hour course called Fundamentals for Early Childhood Professionals. Offered by the Community College of Vermont (CCV), the course fulfills the Level I requirement for Vermont’s early childhood professional development system, allowing graduates of the course to pursue entry-level employment in the early childhood field.
“We knew that, based on the language and education backgrounds of our New Vermonters in Windham County, this standard pathway wasn’t a good enough option for many,” Alex explained. “Waiting till they had full English proficiency before enrolling at CCV to take the Fundamentals class would have been an additional barrier to success for these students. So we asked, ‘What would it take someone to get through Fundamentals if they didn’t yet speak or read much English?’ That is where we started.”
Sixteen students enrolled in the initial preparatory course for the VECF-funded BDCC pilot program in spring 2023. BDCC brought on an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher, Julie Dolan from World Learning in Brattleboro, to deliver a six-week language intensive focused specifically on the vocabulary used in the Fundamentals for Early Childhood Professionals course. The class met twice a week at the Multicultural Community Center of Southern Vermont, a branch office of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC). Two translators attended each class, one for Pashto and Dari and another for French, in order to facilitate communication with students from Afghanistan, Eritrea, and the Central African Republic.
All of the enrollees were women, most of them with multiple young children at home. The 16 participants had 19 young children who required care during classes. It was essential for the program to incorporate no-cost, on-site child minding.
At the end of the six-week ELL course, eight of the 16 participants were prepared to move on to the next phase. “Of those who were not able to progress, many lacked basic literacy in both their native language and English,” Alex said. “Many had never been taught to write in their home countries. Some had not stepped into a classroom since fourth grade. Our goal is that the women who did not move on will be able to pursue additional English language instruction.”
Eight students moved on to the Fundamentals course, which was held at The Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development. The location gave class members the opportunity to visit Winston Prouty’s early childhood classrooms during the course of the training.
Transportation was another potential barrier. “Many of these women were taking the bus alone for the first time,” Alex said. “Because the Brattleboro area has the best public transit system in Vermont, we were able to arrange for the Moover to adjust its pickup time by five minutes so that a group of our students could make their connecting bus. The Moover also made an unscheduled stop at the Multicultural Community Center to pick up more students. Randy from Southeast Vermont Transit made it happen. That’s why programs like this have to be run from the bottom up: you’ve gotta know Randy. ”
BDCC staff quickly learned that further adjustments would need to be made to the Fundamentals course to support students’ needs. The course typically meets once a week for about 13 weeks; BDCC’s initial plan was for twice-weekly sessions, with content delivered during one weekly meeting and a “catch-up session” with educators from the Brattleboro office of Vermont Adult Learning (VAL) during a second meeting. It became clear that students needed more robust support, so BDCC brought Julie Dolan, the ELL teacher, back on board to co-teach with Rachel Hunter, the Fundamentals teacher, and Jeryl Julian-Cisse of VAL.
“We were dedicated to ensuring students understand the concepts,” Alex said. “The goal isn’t finishing in 13 weeks—the goal is getting these folks into a place where they feel like they’re ready for the next step, and acknowledging that not everyone in the course will graduate successfully in the typical time frame.”
The greatest challenge with the project, Alex told me, was the cost of the cascading series of student needs, including ELL instruction and child minding. “The project cost us twice the amount we thought it would, and the trainings took twice as long as a standard Fundamentals in Early Childhood Education training course. And I think it’s gone fantastically—because it’s a pilot.” BDCC hopes that its cost overruns beyond the VECF funding will be covered through traditional workforce funding avenues.
To make the program sustainable in the future, Alex said that ELL and child care costs need to be bundled into the course. His hope is that Vermont’s statewide institutions will see the value of the program and create, say, an 18-week course called “Early Childhood Education for New Vermonters,” with all associated costs rolled into tuition so that they can be funded through standard pathways, such as the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) and the Vermont Department of Labor.
The focus on early childhood education as a pathway for these New Vermonters is key. “We have learned that based on their culture or family background—not necessarily their language abilities—there are few acceptable and culturally appropriate workplaces for these women to enter other than early childhood education,” Alex said. “In many of their home cultures, these decisions are made by the entire family. Amir, BDCC’s Employment Services Manager, who is Afghan himself, knew that he had to educate all the husbands about the benefits and challenges of completing the course in order for the families to commit to it. It wasn’t our place to judge how these decisions are made, but to understand and support families with their goals. Time and space was created for these women to learn for the first time in their lives, not by force but by a mutual understanding within their families about what it means to be an American worker.”
Alex Beck has high hopes for the future expansion of this model for the benefit of New Vermonters as well as for the state as a whole, which is suffering from a major early childhood workforce crisis. “By funding this project, BBF has invested in a new way of doing things,” Alex said. “These New Vermonters now understand that child care is a career they can pursue. These women, who are traditionally excluded from the economy, have been able to see themselves in the economy. For our New Vermonters, we can only hope that their lives look like those of solidly working-class Vermonters—that they are not worrying about where their next meal, shelter, safety, and security are coming from.”
Graduation for these students is set for October 10.
Do you have an idea for a pilot project that would help Vermont families? VECF grant funding has been substantially expanded for the next funding cycle, which opened on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, and will close on Friday, Nov. 10 at 5 p.m. Grant award notifications will be made in mid-December, and the program period will be Feb. 1 through Dec. 31, 2024.
The VECF Opportunity Grant program will provide one-time grants of $10,000 to $80,000. The VECF Innovation Grant program will make awards of $150,000 to $200,000, with the possibility of renewed funding in 2024 and 2025. The goal of the Innovation Grant is to address some of Vermont’s most persistent barriers to serving children and families. Proposals should create innovative solutions in a way that can be replicated in other areas of Vermont. Pilot projects as well as the continuation or expansion of pilot projects are encouraged.