Institute for Early Childhood Helps Raise Skill Level of R.I. Workforce

The inaugural cohort of the early childhood program is completing its first year at RIC this summer.

The inaugural cohort of the early childhood program is completing its first year at RIC this summer.


Rhode Island College’s Institute for Early Childhood Teaching and Learning is helping the state raise the skill level of those workers educating our youngest citizens – Rhode Islanders from birth to second grade.

The institute was designed through a collaboration between RIC and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). RIDE and RIC are committed to providing pathways to bachelor’s degrees for individuals currently working in the early childhood education field.

The program design ensures students leave with the depth and breadth of skills required of effective early childhood educators. The eight-semester program has an established PreK-2 concentration and is finalizing a separate birth-5 concentration. The curriculum ranges from childhood development to community partnerships, health and wellness to social and emotional development. Applicants must hold an associate’s degree to be eligible to enroll.

Classes are scheduled in the evenings so that they do not compete with students’ workplace commitments. Students follow Individual Academic Support Plans based on their math, writing and reading test results and must participate in one and a half hours of academic support each week to pass the Praxis/CORE exams. Support is provided by RIC’s Learning for Life program and the Office of Academic Support and Information Services for the student’s first three semesters in the program.

“The value of the Institute for Early Childhood Teaching and Learning is that through the coursework, academic and nonacademic support, candidates are improving their sense of themselves as professionals and their professional knowledge, skills and dispositions,” said Associate Professor of Elementary Education Leslie Sevey, who worked with Professor Karen Castagno to establish the institute. “Ultimately, by supporting candidates to complete bachelor’s degrees, the institute improves the quality of programs for young children and the quality of child outcomes.”

In Rhode Island, as is the case throughout the country, not all early childhood educators hold college degrees. A 2014 workforce study commissioned by the Rhode Island Department of Human Services showed that only 47 percent of staff working at Rhode Island preschool centers hold bachelor’s degrees. Furthermore, only 15 percent of staff in infant/toddler centers and 14 percent in family child care settings hold bachelor’s degrees.

A recently released report by the Institute of Medicine, “Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8,” makes a strong case to elevate educational standards for this particular segment of the workforce, calling for “phased, multiyear pathways to transition to a minimum bachelor’s degree requirement with specialized knowledge and competencies for all lead educators” in the early childhood field. “The science of child development and early learning clearly indicates that the work of lead educators of young children of all ages requires the same high level of sophisticated knowledge and competencies related to child development, content knowledge and educational practices,” the report stated.

On a local level, the children’s policy and advocacy group Rhode Island KIDS COUNT has also weighed in on the subject in its 2015 report, “Next Steps for Infants, Toddlers and Their Families.” Among its recommendations are to provide professional development opportunities for infant and toddler educators and to explore developing early childhood credentialing linked to higher education at the entry, associate-degree and bachelor’s-degree levels.

The Institute for Early Childhood Teaching and Learning is currently wrapping up its inaugural year of operation, and the 15 members of its first cohort have positive feedback to share. Student Kelly Schofield, an employee of Stork’s Nest Child Academy, finds the skills she is learning at RIC easy to apply to her workplace, stating that the program “has given me the unique opportunity to immediately use what I am learning in my own classroom each week. I am able to see how certain teaching practices are beneficial to the children whom I teach every day.”

Heather Frechette, an employee of CHILD, Inc., appreciates the support of her fellow students. “I enjoy being with the same group of students each semester. We can relate to each other’s work ethic and busy lifestyle. We work as a team and help each other when needed.”

Institute Director Susan Zoll, who is also an assistant professor with RIC’s Feinstein School of Education and Human Development, reflected on the program’s success to date, stating, “I am really encouraged to see the changes in the past year, from students who said, ‘I am not good at math’ or ‘I really don't know how to use a computer,’ to students who now feel confident to take their Praxis exam or maneuver Blackboard software in a hybrid course environment.”

Zoll said that RIC has already recruited 20 students for a new cohort this fall, but interested persons may apply for acceptance to the spring semester of 2016. Funding for the institute’s development and operation is provided by RIDE as part of the Exceed initiative, the state's cross-departmental effort to implement the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge Grant. Tuition and financial assistance to support student enrollment may be available through a scholarship from T.E.A.C.H. Rhode Island.