PEER was created in 2014 to produce research that can inform early childhood education policy and practice at the local and state levels and increase access to high-quality early childhood education, with the goal of reducing disparities in educational outcomes. Although many early childhood education programs focus primarily on children, children grow up in the context of their families, which means that parents and other primary caregivers are critical and invaluable partners. When identifying PEER’s priority research areas, partner organizations identified supporting and engaging families as an important topic.
When it was founded in 2016, the Maritime Odyssey Preschool in Norwalk began to lay plans for a two-generational approach in which parents would be served through a Family Executive Center (FEC) while children were served through the preschool program. The FEC opened its doors last fall thanks to a generous gift from a private donor, and it is located within the Maritime Odyssey Preschool. The FEC has six areas of emphasis: technology, training, employment, mentoring, counseling, and prenatal parent support and education. While The Maritime Aquarium is Odyssey’s primary partner for its STEM-based preschool (with PEER as an evaluation partner), Grace Baptist Church is Odyssey’s primary partner for the FEC.
In January, the FEC launched a new initiative under the employment component that engages families in a way that directly benefits parents, children, and the preschool itself: the Career and Family Coaching Institute. This FEC program is designed to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty by helping parents to become early childhood education professionals. Although Odyssey had developed the model over the past few years, it was able to launch the Institute this winter with support from a grant awarded to Connecticut Association of Human Services (CAHS) by The W. H. Kellogg Foundation to support two-gen work in Connecticut. All parents with children in Odyssey’s preschool program were invited to apply to become Parent Scholars in the Career and Family Coaching Institute. Of the twenty parents who applied to the Career and Family Coaching Institute, eight were accepted into the first cohort and six more will participate in the second cohort this fall. Between January and June, these Parent Scholars are participating in more than 50 hours of professional learning and logging over 200 observation hours in the classroom of an experienced preschool teacher.
Completing the Career and Family Coaching Institute puts parents well on their way to earning a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, which is required in many child care settings for entry-level positions. While participating in the program, Parent Scholars receive a small stipend and tuition-free preschool for their children. Those parents that completed the program this spring were offered full-time job placements at Maritime Odyssey Preschool, where they will continue to complete the coursework and classroom hours required for the CDA and prepare for the CDA exam. As full-time employees, these parents now have access to employee benefits including tuition reimbursement that will allow them to work toward an associate degree in early childhood.
Five members of the first cohort have been hired for full-time positions at Maritime Odyssey Preschool. When asked what draws parents to participate in the Career and Family Coaching Institute, FEC Director Prema Winn noted that parents were most excited about the opportunity to learn skills and knowledge from Odyssey’s preschool teachers. For those Parent Scholars whose first language wasn’t English, the Institute also provides the opportunity to develop their English proficiency in the classroom. Winn noted that parents are much more excited about these long-term benefits of participating in the program than they were about short-term benefits like tuition-free preschool.
Monisha Gibson, C.E.O. and Director of Maritime Odyssey Preschool, is extremely enthusiastic about continuing the Career and Family Coaching Institute this fall. Although Odyssey won’t be able to hire every graduate of the program, she knows that there is a shortage of early childhood education professionals in the region. She tells her Parent Scholars that “if we aren’t able to offer you a position, we can help you get placed elsewhere.” In the end, she’s confident that empowering parents to enter the early childhood education field will benefit the community, as well as moving families toward economic security.