Child care program aims to add quality teachers, raise wages for Tarrant County educators

·7 min read

LaCreisha Watson didn’t have concrete plans on returning to school after she joined the early childhood education workforce directly after high school more than 20 years ago.

But when she heard about a free program where she could get usually expensive training and credentials vital to progressing in her early childhood teaching career, the opportunity was too much to pass up.

“It was just something that kind of fell in my lap,” she said at a ceremony celebrating her and 18 other graduates from an early childhood education apprentice program. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it if not for a program like this.”

The moment was also cherished by her entire family, including her mother, sister, great-grandmother and her children, who said it was a full-circle moment.

“Words can not describe how proud I am,” her great-grandmother, Mary Lee Watson, said. “If you do the right thing, and put God first, everything will work out.”

LaCreisha Watson gathers with her family after graduating from the Early Childhood Education Apprentice Program in Fort Worth. The program, run by Camp Fire First Texas. is the first of its kind in Texas.
LaCreisha Watson gathers with her family after graduating from the Early Childhood Education Apprentice Program in Fort Worth. The program, run by Camp Fire First Texas. is the first of its kind in Texas.

Her sons, Que’Andrae and Quentreal said they were proud to see their mom graduate as a teacher.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s like the roles reversed because she got to see me do it — now I get to see her do it,” Que’Andrae said.

The Camp Fire First Texas Early Educator Apprenticeship program — the first of its kind in the state —graduated 19 educators this past weekend, up from just four during the first graduating year in the middle of a pandemic.

Experts believe the program is already increasing the quality of child care for children and wages for child care workers in Tarrant County, pushing back against one of the largest transfers of educators out of the sector in the history of the fragile workforce.

Another graduate Saturday was June Robles, who the Star-Telegram highlighted while she was in the middle of the program last year.

Robles said she did not see a future as an early educator when she started as an assistant teacher at a Fort Worth child care center just over a year ago.

She had just left the retail industry, and had plans to go to culinary school to become a baker.

“When I first started, I didn’t see myself going far with it,” Robles said. “Now that I’ve been doing it for a year, I don’t want to stop.”

June Robles with the ECE Apprentice program helps the children build a tower during class on Oct. 5, 2021, at Good Shepherd Christian Academy in Fort Worth.
June Robles with the ECE Apprentice program helps the children build a tower during class on Oct. 5, 2021, at Good Shepherd Christian Academy in Fort Worth.

Program looks to increase quality teachers

Outgoing Vice President of Early Learning Lyn Lucas was instrumental in founding the apprenticeship program, and navigating it through the tricky process of operating amid pandemic-era lockdowns and virtual learning.

“Early on we saw that there was a gap in teachers being able to make their way up, and planned and coordinated alignment between educational and workforce development,” she said. “There were several roadblocks.”

Those roadblocks, identified through polling of early educators Camp Fire First Texas worked with on school readiness, included the lack of flexible programs, financial viability and transferable credits.

“One thing the apprenticeship program does is take away some of those barriers,” Lucas said. “This program is available at no cost to the apprentices, and values the experience they have and helps close the opportunity gap.”

Mechell Green, who oversees early childhood programs for the YMCA of Metropolitan Fort Worth, said barriers keeping early educators from receiving accreditation and higher education have persisted for years.

“People don’t have an extra $100 to get a CDA, much less to try to get an associate or a bachelor’s,” she said.

Green also spoke of those benefits at the ceremony.

But the benefits to graduates extend beyond finances.

“This isn’t only an economic solution, it is an equity solution, it is a quality solution,” Lucas said. “And it is hopeful enough that the whole state of Texas is interested in figuring out how to expand this, and scale it out.”

The program provides opportunities for a range of credentialing, including earning a childcare development associate certification, which is key to advance in many early learning programs.

In addition, participants have access to receive college credit at Tarrant County College and Tarleton State University.

Julian Alvarez III, the commissioner representing labor of the Texas Workforce Commission, lauded the program at the ceremony, noting similar programs cropping up across the state — including in San Antonio.

Pandemic highlighted value of early educators

Karen Kepley, who is the executive director of Kids R Kids in Frisco, said the expectations of early educators have multiplied at the same time that compensation has stayed the same.

“Our hope is to bring in teachers who are flexible and great communicators, dedicated, energetic, caring, sometimes a little silly and all our list of expectations can go on and on,” she said during a graduation speech. “The number of candidates that come through our doors are dwindling. And we have to ask ourselves, why? Where are they? And Where did everybody go?”

That question has been asked with a rising sense of urgency by local, state and national policymakers and employers as parents fail to return to the workforce and the classroom, creating a slow motion crisis for the economy.

For many, jobs in retail and restaurants with higher pay and sometimes more benefits lured them out. For others, the stress of operating under increasing stress caused them to leave.

When the pandemic shuttered almost every other business, however, child care was one of the essential services that remained open to serve front-line workers, and parents who couldn’t work from home.

Kepley and other speakers said the silver lining of the pandemic is that parents were exposed to the true magnitude of the work done by early educators.

“We were respected for our hard work and our dedication, as more and more children returned back to school,” she said.

With greater awareness, Kepley said she hopes programs like the apprenticeship will continue to benefit quality teachers for early childhood education — and help qualified educators get the wages they deserve.

Elizabeth Alzate, the director of the Montessori Bilingual School in Little Elm, said she herself was reminded of the value of the teachers after going through the program.

“I just appreciate my teachers more, because we tend to forget what they go through when you are in front,” she said. “It’s so easy to tell them, you need to do this, or you need to do that.”

“After COVID, everyone, society understood … that we are essential,” she said.

Watson said the credentials and experience show parents and the world the value of her profession.

“It does show people that we’re not just glorified babysitters, just changing diapers,” she said. “We’re actually molding their kids, because we get them from as young as 6 weeks on up to 5 years old. We set the foundation for what they’re going to do when they get in school.”

Mandi Kimball, director of public policy and government affairs for the advocacy organization Children At Risk, which has advocated for greater professional development in the sector for years, said the path the apprenticeship creates will ultimately benefit children in child care centers and homes.

“What the apprenticeship program does is that it allows for a career pipeline so that we are improving the quality of our teachers, which turns into quality interactions with our children,” she said. “It also maximizes curriculum and results in an overall quality education and experience.”

National conversation

The completion of the second class of Camp Fire First apprentices comes after national policymakers voted on another massive federal spending proposal that leaves child care funding out in favor of other priorities.

The National Head Start Association decried the passing opportunity, which adds to a growing collection of proposed legislation that nearly provided historic funding for early childhood education, only to be removed at the last minute as part of negotiations.

“How can our country move forward without a high-quality workforce to care for and teach our children?” National Head Start Association Executive Director Yasmina Vinci said. “The answer is simple: we can’t make progress until Congress delivers stabilizing compensation funding. And they must do so as soon as possible, before more communities fall behind.”

On the eve of another failed legislative push for child care funding as part of a broader spending package last year, Kimball said that regardless of whether legislation passes, the necessity of a qualified child care workforce has been highlighted over the last two years.

“I think it has become very clear that if we want a strong economy, that we need a strong child care system,” she said. “And the only way for parents to be able to go back to work is to ensure that we are investing appropriately into the early childhood education system and that it’s sustained.”