Infancy through third grade lays the foundation on which a life is built, and some kids are given a shakier scaffold than others.
A new statewide commission meets in Lincoln for the first time Wednesday to address workforce problems in early childhood education. The commission was set up by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, a fairly new enterprise overseen by the University of Nebraska system.
The panel will strive to expand and improve the state’s early childhood workforce. The meeting today isn’t open to the public.
The Buffett Early Childhood Institute, a statewide enterprise based in Omaha, aims to eliminate achievement gaps among young children, expand and improve the workforce serving those children, and improve public understanding of the importance of early childhood care and education. The institute began its work in 2013.
Research increasingly shows how vital good education, teaching and learning opportunities are to the ability of small children to mature into happy, productive citizens.
“This is a profession in crisis,” Samuel Meisels, executive director of the institute, said of early childhood education.
The only reason so many people do it well is because they love children and understand the importance of the work, Meisels said. Status, salary, labor conditions and other factors work against excellence in teaching at the preschool level. The commission will examine how workers are prepared, certification and licensing issues, working conditions and other factors.
At Educare in north Omaha, Jenn Janzen works full time with children ages 3 through 5.
“I think children are born with that curiosity, that they love to learn,” Janzen said. “That’s one of the joys of the job.”
But even at a solid, well-supported child care center such as Educare, it’s hard to keep great staff, said Jane Happe, executive director of Educare of Omaha. Some of her lower-paid staffers, who don’t have bachelor’s degrees, work second jobs, Happe said.
And those with bachelor’s degrees sometimes get recruited away by preschool programs in the Omaha Public Schools and other school districts.
“These are hard jobs,” Happe said. “It takes a lot of energy to do these jobs well.”
The committee will be made up of 39 public- and private-sector leaders. Meisels and Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Education and Human Sciences, will co-chair the commission. The panel will include State Sen. John Stinner, who is the Nebraska Legislature’s Appropriations Committee chairman, and representatives from across Nebraska from government agencies, higher education, public schools, early childhood centers and charities.
The commission will meet four times a year for three years. The commission will issue a report, or multiple reports, with recommendations.
In 2015, the median salary for child care professionals in Nebraska was $19,620, the institute reported.
“The competition is Wendy’s,” said Meisels, 71, who was recruited to oversee the Nebraska enterprise from the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago. Before that he was a faculty member and research scientist at the University of Michigan.
Eleven counties in Nebraska have no licensed child care facilities. Nearly 80 percent of children 5 and younger in this state are in some kind of paid care, the institute says.
Among many challenges the commission will address is the fact that numerous Nebraska colleges offer early childhood programs, but there is little consistency in required classroom hours and training.
Jane Franklin, dean of social sciences at Metro Community College, said she also would like to see consistency in transfer agreements between community colleges’ early childhood programs and those of four-year schools. Franklin is on the commission.
“This is going to be a dedicated, committed group,” Franklin said.
Kostelnik said early childhood teachers in centers and schools have jobs that aren’t just physically and emotionally draining. They are intellectually challenging jobs, too. Kostelnik said people think it just takes the heart and desire to serve young children, when in fact it takes know-how and understanding.
Professionals need to know how to support children and how to stretch their intellects a bit without discouraging them. “You do not have to force little kids to be excited about learning,” Kostelnik said. “And there’s not a worry about succeeding or failing. There’s just curiosity.”
Testing small kids, making learning stressful and onerous, forcing them to memorize things and other strategies can tamp down the natural enthusiasm to learn. Trendy strategies such as Mozart tapes and flash cards for babies generally aren’t as effective as giving them a chance to a explore a pile of leaves, crawl around a room and investigate, or sit on an adult’s lap while the adult reads 15 minutes a day to the child, she said.
Jessie Rasmussen, president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, said when a young child starts behind, it’s hard to make up that deficit. “And in fact, the gap usually gets wider,” Rasmussen said.
The commission’s work will focus on early childhood education services to children who are at risk of doing poorly in school.
Meisels said child care is only one of several important influences on a youngster. Others include family, environment and income. Starting well, he said, is vital. Children at risk have the most to gain, he said, but all children and society as a whole benefit when children get off to a fast, strong start.