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Dr. Kathy Fletcher knows the first three years of a child’s life are critical for preparing kids to grow and mature into healthy and productive students and adults.
But what if early childcare providers don’t know how to make it happen?
Fletcher, President and CEO of Voices for Children of San Antonio, worried that these providers—who only need a high-school education to be on the job—are eager to help children success, but don’t always have the tools to give local kids the appropriate developmental care and services they need during their formative years to promote healthy development.
At least one quarter of children birth to five are in some form of organized out-of-home child care.
Investing in professional development for early childhood providers can reduce the achievement gap, improve health, boost earnings, and provide a high rate of economic return for the children in their care.
So Fletcher teamed up with local partners and Voices board member Rebecca Viagran, an early childcare provider herself in the 1990s, for a big idea to provide free professional development for early childcare providers. This training would give Latino and other disadvantaged kids in San Antonio (63.8% Latino) a better shot at a healthy childhood and life.
Uncovering the Hole in the Early Childcare System
Fletcher has spent her career helping kids and families as a caseworker and teacher.
She is a founding member of Voices for Children San Antonio, a nonprofit that seeks solutions to improve local child development and well-being.
Early childcare has long been a key concern of hers.
A good early childcare provider can help kids eat healthy foods, get physical activity, and develop habits that promote health. They can help prepare kids for preschool. They can also help kids deal with adverse childhood situations, such as poverty, abuse and other traumas.
“There is a lot of research linking childhood trauma to later obesity and diabetes,” Fletcher said. “We have so many young children experience traumatic situations in this community, we have severe poverty, high incidence of domestic violence and child abuse, and violence in general in the community.”
However, many providers are limited by a lack of formal training.
In Texas, early childcare providers are required to have a high-school diploma or GED and 24 hours of annual training. Other states require much more, such as 12 postsecondary semester units in early childhood education from an accredited college and/or 20 semester hours of training in a college or university in early childhood education, child development, or special education. Others also require certification as a Child Development Associate (CDA) or Certified Childcare Professional (CCP).
Texas early childcare providers may be less prepared to address children’s physical and mental health. They may have less skill in tackling low literacy, toxic stress, abuse, neglect, poverty, uninvolved parents, incarceration, and many more issues linked to delayed development and poor health outcomes later in life.
“The early child care setting sees the most kids for the most time, yet early care employees are the least prepared and the most poorly paid,” Fletcher said. “The first few years are just so important for preventing obesity and chronic illness and preparing kids for kindergarten and life.”
An Idea to Help Early Childcare Providers
Fletcher and her group wanted to find a way to enable local childcare providers across the entire city to promote healthy development for disadvantaged children.
That’s why she was thrilled when then San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro convened a task force to in 2011 to identify effective methods for improving educational quality in San Antonio.
The talks ultimately led to the Pre-K 4 SA initiative. In 2012, San Antonio voters approved a small sales tax increase to fund this program which would establish new pre-kindergarten centers for 4-year-olds and future mentoring sites for other pre-K sites.
This was good, but did not address children ages 3 and younger, to the disappointment of Fletcher and Viagran, a Voices board member since 2003.
“We had 5-year-olds covered and now 4-year-olds, but what about younger?,” Viagran wondered.
Similar to how the Pre-K- 4 SA initiative trained providers in their centers, Viagran and Fletcher wanted to start professional development training courses for early child care providers to support early learning and to identify and deal with children’s behavioral issues related to chronic stress and trauma in the home.
They knew they would need help.
Getting Support for a Never-Been-Done Program
Viagran wanted to ask council members to give some of their $1,500 discretionary funds toward professional development for early childcare providers.
“Every district has child centers, and council members have dollars they put towards education as well as connections with higher education institutions they can use to connect constituents and small business with training and resources,” Viagran said.
They began with a presentation to pro-education Council Member Rey Saldaña in District 4, an area of San Antonio that is primarily Latino, struggles with poverty and high rates of diabetes, and contains a large number of licensed early childcare centers and families involved in those centers.
They also simultaneously presented to Dr. Mike Flores, President of Palo Alto College, regarding how many licensed child care centers were in their area and how many kids and families those centers impact, as well as the states minimum standards for caregivers.
“We thought we should do it on a college campus because many child care staff have never been on a college campus,” Dr. Fletcher said.
We wanted to show early care providers that the path towards higher education doesn’t start in high school, it starts at as early as 0-3.
Saldaña agreed to use his district’s discretionary funds to host a free early childhood training workshop in his district with a resource fair to connect providers to local resources and services.
Flores arranged to host the event free of charge at Palo Alto College.
Fletcher helped plan the workshop with help from the San Antonio Association for the Education of young Children (SAAEYC), Family Service Association, the Center for Miracles, and other local agencies.
They asked local professors to speak at the workshop, which includes breakfast, lunch, a plenary session and breakouts totaling 10 hours of training on topics like learning through play, exploring early literacy, bullying, normal infant/toddler behavior, and how to deal with frustration to prevent abusive injury.
Saldana and district staff welcomed child care providers and boasted about how important they are. The Councilman suggested a resource fair to ensure providers knew the resources in his district and in the city.
Flores welcomed everybody and explained that his own children are in early childhood care and how important that is for his family. He invited child care providers to return to the campus to continue their education.
More than 130 early child care providers attended the first Early Childhood Training and Resource Fair at Palo Alto College on Feb. 9, 2013.
“[Council members] help us get the word out to everyone in their district, especially home care providers that we may not have access to,” Fletcher said.
In the meantime, Viagran was running for City Council in District 3.
Expanding the Reach
Since the initial session, more council members have agreed to use their discretionary funds to conduct these professional trainings in their council district.
In May 2013, when Viagran was elected to the San Antonio City Council, she used her discretionary funds to work with Fletcher to host an Early Childhood Training Workshop and Resource Fair in her district with Dr. Maria Ferrier, President of Texas A&M University in San Antonio on November 9, 2013.
“It was such a joy to be a council member and bring this workshop, that I helped create, to my district,” Viagran said.
Viagran has held annual training and resource fairs since.
Today, Voices for Children organizes six to eight training workshops a year, each with about 250 attendees.
With newly elected City Council member’s support, they expect to host 10 training events in the coming year.
They have trained 5,000 providers, as of 2017.
The effort has also improved council members’ focus on early childhood education.
For example, Diego Bernal was new to the idea of professional development for early childcare providers while he served as District 1 City Council member.
Now Bernal is advocating for early childhood issues as a state representative.
“Once they do it and see what’s going on and get positive feedback, then they are all in for early child care,” Fletcher said. “It is a way of educating the people in office who make the decisions for this community and grooming them to become future childhood advocates.”
Not all council members use discretionary funds for these trainings. Also, council members often face restrictions on use of discretionary funds.
In these instances, Fletcher seeks funding from other leaders.
For example, Tommy Calvert, Bexar County Commissioner for Precinct 4 and preschool teacher as a new college graduate, paid for a training event at St. Phillips College when the City of San Antonio was in a pre-election moratorium. State Senator Donna Campbell, a physican, also sponsored and hosted a training event.
“I can talk about the research forever, but these workshops build early child advocates among our politicians,” Fletcher said. “Which is what our city needs.”
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.