President Barack Obama has called for universal preschool for four-year-olds in his last two State of the Union addresses, which has so far led to 30 states increasing funding for early childhood education and the federal government giving an additional $1 billion to Early Head Start. Bill de Blasio, the newly elected mayor of New York City, is also pushing for citywide preschool for children, and other mayors and governors have joined in the movement.
It’s produced some hot debate as well, with criticisms over funding the loudest and even some questions of tangible benefits. Proponents point to the potentially equalizing factor of universal preschool, which could give needy children a chance to close the achievement gap and climb out of poverty.
But for all the rhetoric, the campaign for expanded early childhood education ultimately comes down to teachers, and National Louis University is playing a key role in preparing the next generation in Illinois. NLU was recently awarded nearly $50,000 in January from the Illinois Board of Higher Education as part of federal Race for the Top funds — a nationwide education disbursement to spur innovation and reform. The Pathways to Excellence in Early Childhood Education grant links NLU with long-time partner Triton College to prepare community college students to be effective early childhood educators.
“We’re bringing more students to NLU, but we’re also supporting those students who want to obtain licensure and get going versus saying, ‘Well, I’ll never pass that hurdle, and I can’t reach my goal,’” said Sherri Bressman, Assistant Director of Teacher Preparation at NLU. “We need to support them so they can be competent.”
Sherri joins Ayn Keneman, Associate Professor; Xiaoli Wen, Assistant Professor; Leslie Katch, Assistant Professor; and Linda Bliss, Instructor, in the Early Childhood Education team at NLU, all of whom will be involved with the grant work.
The grant’s first component focuses on helping Triton students pass the ACT so they can be accepted into the early childhood bachelor’s program at NLU. Students may also take the Illinois Test of Academic Proficiency to enter the program, but Sherri said the team is focusing on the ACT because of the robust preparation resources available. Passing an entrance test sets a good standard for students going forward, Ayn added.
“The preparation makes a difference in the students’ success, not only for passing the required standardized tests but more long term, even for them in their courses and in their later success,” she said.
The second component of the grant will see NLU faculty working in tandem with their Triton counterparts to deliver relevant coursework, which includes a component that can lead to an additional ESL or bilingual state endorsement to better serve diverse student populations.
“It’s a better alignment between two-year colleges and four-year colleges and to make sure our curriculum has good continuation and alignment so it’s easier for them to transition,” Xiaoli said. “We just want to work with them to make this whole process easier.”
The goal, Sherri added, is to get teacher candidates to graduate and get them licensed to teach in Illinois. NLU’s team recognizes the growing importance of their discipline, which politicians are only now tapping into. Sherri said they continue to hear the early childhood buzz at the academic level at conferences, and they’re continuing to stay ahead of the curve. NLU’s early childhood program was recently revised to highlight the importance of literacy, as well as anticipate a coming shift in Illinois in which kindergarten will be handled only by teachers with an early childhood endorsement, not an elementary endorsement.
Sherri stressed that NLU has been a part of early childhood education from the very beginning, when University founder Elizabeth Harrison opened her kindergarten teacher-training school in 1886. This proud sense of continuing a long-standing mission sets NLU’s program apart, she said, as well as purposeful design of curriculum and the University’s partnership with Gateways to Opportunity, a professional development organization that issues credentials for excellence in early childhood education.
The new IBHE grant will last a year, and Sherri hopes NLU’s work with Triton will produce a model that can be replicated with other two-year college partners to increase the number of qualified candidates entering this in-demand field and help them make a difference.
“We have a diverse population of students in early childhood,” Ayn said, “and one of their overreaching goals is to go back to the community and make things better, so they want to use this knowledge to become teacher leaders in their community.”