St. Catherine University is amid a sea change — one that’s been forged under years of pressure on the nation’s early childhood education (ECE) system due to low wages, high turnover, lack of benefits for its workforce, long waiting lists and sky-high costs for families, and inequitable access for many children. Most recently, we’ve experienced its collapse under the crushing toll of the pandemic.
The ECE workforce provides quality care and developmental support for young children from infancy through the beginning of elementary school. Of the nearly 3 million adults working as early childhood educators and caregivers in regulated family child care, center-based child care, and publicly funded preschools, almost all are women. And despite providing quality care and developmental support during the most crucial phase of children’s development, these workers are among the lowest paid educators. They’re also the most racially diverse sector of the teaching workforce — around 40% of workers are women of color, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
The ability to access these programs is crucially important. Decades of research prove that quality ECE programs significantly impact children’s learning and development from birth all the way into adulthood. ECE availability also supports parents, especially women, who face the impossible choice between working to afford food and rent or pulling out of the workforce to care for their children.
St. Kate’s is well positioned to train and support the next generation of early childhood educators, including a potential influx of new students into the field resulting from President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Under the plan’s social services initiatives, which aim to reduce these ECE inequities and professionalize the field, Build Back Better seeks to make high-quality child care affordable, raise wages for child care workers, and provide universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds.
The importance of providing quality, accessible ECE programs and supporting the women in its workforce are both central to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s social justice teachings and St. Kate’s mission to educate women to lead and influence. In response to the ECE inequity issues of our time, the St. Catherine University approach is dual focus. The first is to center the education department’s resources to invest in training and support for early childhood educators. The second is to provide quality early childhood curriculum for the care and instruction of young children.
“Everything we know about educational disparities in elementary and secondary education can be traced back to the quality of early childhood education,” says Anita Thomas, PhD, executive vice president and provost of St. Kate’s. “We’re starting to view a child’s path in the context of the school-to-prison pipeline and in tracking disparate suspension rates in preschools. It also plays into the importance of emotional intelligence and social skills that are learned and enhanced through quality early childhood experiences.”
Numerous studies have shown that learning to share, being cooperative, and having empathy for others are social skills learned by young children during the structured play opportunities and peer relationships of early socialization. Quality ECE experiences teach these in socialized environments along with emotional intelligence skills that are linked with greater success throughout a child’s life and into adulthood, such as impulse delay and learning how to appropriately read and react to social cues and social situations.
“The state of Minnesota has the highest educational inequities in the entire country,” says Thomas. “We know that students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) achieve at far lower levels in writing, math, and standardized testing. When you think about generational poverty and the importance of education as a social justice issue, you have to start with good access to quality early childhood education in order to help prevent some of the disparities and support equity.”
Meeting the needs of the time
Supporting early childhood educators has been central to St. Kate’s early childhood and Montessori programming for decades. Now in its fifth year as a revised ECE program, its innovative approach — combining antiracist, Montessori, and traditional methods with online licensure availability — is designed for working women, especially BIPOC women and those with children.
This approach was key to the program’s development, says Teresa Ripple MAED’12, EdD, associate professor in early childhood and Montessori programs at St. Kate’s, who helped develop the program. “We were committed to empowering these women educators and caregivers,” Ripple explains. “They should be able to continue to work and earn an income while attending classes, securing scholarships, and attaining higher degree levels and licensures — that was the major impetus for us that came from the CSJ motto of meeting the needs of the time.”
The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found the average hourly wage of child care workers in the United States is around $11.65 per hour. Preschool teachers fare slightly better, earning about $14.65 per hour; however, elementary educators, who are predominantly middle-class white women, earn on average more than $32 per hour. It’s unrealistic, Ripple says, to pay our ECE workforce at the poverty level and expect them to stay in those roles — they won’t. High turnover and women leaving the workforce lead to more care center closures and a scarcity of available, affordable child care options for families.
“If the pandemic has laid anything open, it’s that people aren’t willing to make that sacrifice,” Ripple says. “Child care is seen as women’s work, so it’s valued less highly. That gap in value and pay exacerbates an already difficult situation. Nine out of 10 families in Minnesota need child care, and as a result of the pandemic and child care shortages, more women have been forced to stay home and care for their children because they typically earn less than their male partners. Suddenly, we’ve got a rollback to a 1950s-era situation that diminishes the earning power for many women.”
While the 1950s represent a period of significant gender inequality, it was also the advent of great breakthroughs in ECE programming. In 1955, Sister Ann Harvey, a professor of education at St. Kate’s, traveled to study Montessori methodology in Italy. Created by Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, it was still seen as a relatively new approach to education in the United States in 1955. Designed as a child-centered, self-paced, and experiential approach to learning, the Montessori method focuses on the whole child and cultivates their natural interest in activities.
When Sr. Ann Harvey returned from Italy, the University began integrating Montessori methods into its teacher preparation programs alongside traditional education pedagogy. Access to both methodologies is a key offering of the early education curriculum, and both are practiced in tandem within the University’s own Early Childhood Center, which offers child care for faculty, staff, students, and the local community, as well as providing training and observation opportunities for many students and departments at St. Kate’s. Ripple herself is a St. Kate’s graduate who received a Montessori credential in early childhood and a master’s in education in 2002.
Recognizing that many Montessori programs include accessibility barriers for children from low-income and BIPOC families, Syneva Barrett, former program director for the Advanced Montessori programs at St. Kate’s, inspired Ripple to assist with revising the education department’s early childhood curriculum and expanding its programs to better meet the needs of the time.
“We don’t believe only the two-to-five percent of children who can afford Montessori programs should experience it,” Ripple says. “We wanted to make Montessori more accessible to all teachers and incorporate the influence of Montessori for social justice in our early childhood program. People were really starting to pay attention to the studies showing that children from low-income and BIPOC families were having remarkable outcomes many years after experiencing Montessori and other quality early childhood programming, and the economic benefits of quality early childhood care are great. We knew we would do well to invest there.”
Ripple was a doctoral candidate at the time, and was focused on completing research in anti-bias and antiracist (ABAR) education curriculum alongside former assistant professor Olivia Christensen, PhD, who is now an early childhood education specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education.
“ABAR pedagogies grew to be the main thread,” says Ripple. “We wanted to create an early childhood program based on those principles. There is so much research that children from birth start to absorb the bias and racism in their environments, and by age three it can be profound. Helping teachers to address that was and is really important to us.”
According to Ripple, by as young as age eight, many children have established basic personalities and attitudes toward the world, and have solidified their neural pathways. “It’s often harder to ameliorate the effects of racism then. Whatever we can do early on has an enormous impact later in life.”
Much of ABAR education begins with the teachers first addressing their own biases and limitations. As part of the St. Kate’s curriculum, students dig into what biases they may have, where they’ve originated, and how they were founded in order to break apart those biases and racist views, and model that within their classrooms.
“It’s really serious, and one of the most important things an early childhood teacher needs to learn how to do to establish that foundation and disrupt that path,” says Sarah Hassebroek, MAED’06, EdD, program director for the early childhood and Montessori program at St. Kate’s. “They must examine how they are leading class and disciplining children, what materials are being chosen, what lessons they give. When unaddressed, [teachers’ biases] have a lasting impact, and can lead children to the prison pipeline later in life.”
The curriculum St. Kate’s has developed takes a holistic approach to education. It centers around ABAR principles and includes the best of Montessori education, with supplements from traditional mainstream education practices. Licensure was also important to build into the early childhood programs, so that students could work in public schools if they chose that path after graduation. More than 20 classes were created — some with more mainstream content focus, some with Montessori, and some integrating both. The program received not only Minnesota state licensure but also approvals from the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teachers Education and the American Montessori Society.
“We worked as fast as we could because we knew early childhood programming was changing fast, and we wanted to offer our students as many different modalities to earn the most they could in the way they wanted and have a lot of options,” Ripple says. “We are currently the only university offering licensure programs that are primarily online.”
The ECE programming has been a success since it began in 2016 and is nearly back to pre-pandemic enrollment rates. Recent University reports show a 94% retention rate for program majors.
Meeting the needs of students
Not only does the training work to provide the curriculum students are looking for, it’s also specially designed to work with the lifestyle needs of adult women with jobs and/or children.
“For many women working in the ECE field, obtaining a higher pay scale and dreams of completing their degree have always been put to the wayside,” says Hassebroek. “Attending a typical college program was inaccessible, so our program is fully online and allows the flexibility for learners to attend classes while keeping their jobs,continuing to serve their communities, and meeting their family’s needs.”
Rebekah Spooner ’23 of Huntsville, Alabama, has been working in the classroom as a Montessori lead toddler guide for 16 years. For several weeks throughout the year, she travels to Kentucky as a faculty member and instructor for a second child care center and Montessori School, Crescent Ridge Academy, to train other teachers in infant and toddler Montessori pedagogy. Of those 16 years, she’s been a part-time student for eight and working on her bachelor’s degree for six.
“I’ve always learned at my own pace because I’ve needed to work full time,” says Spooner. “After five years at a local community college, I felt like I was taking courses that didn’t even matter, and I still didn’t know what my major would be. I started searching online and saw I could get 25 of my credit hours from my Montessori certificate at St. Kate’s, and I realized this is where I wanted to go.”
Although she’s out of state, Spooner’s situation reflects the needs of many in her field. She’s only ever had time to learn online, and the flexibility she’s found at St. Kate’s has allowed her to make huge gains in her education progress since her enrollment in the fall of 2019.
“The level of support I’ve had at St. Kate’s is something I’ve never witnessed,” says Spooner. “My instructors are so understanding of my travel schedule — they are willing to open modules early or let me take my time to complete my work — but I’m still able to be part of the class, be included in discussions, and continue to interact with my peers while maintaining my job’s commitments. St. Kate’s takes care of its students’ whole wellness, not just caring for us academically, and we’re all valued no matter where we are in life.”
Spooner says her employer has also embraced the ABAR studies she is learning at St. Kate’s — particularly her head of school, who had wanted to incorporate ABAR studies in the past but never knew where to begin.
“I’m being exposed to so much that I know I would not have found if I had not been at St. Kate’s,” Spooner says. “I’m not just reading studies, but I’m learning ABAR education in a proper way with methods to apply it to a toddler environment. People don’t think toddlers are capable of understanding racism, but they are, and they can through different books, materials, activities, and other ways I’d never thought of before.”
As Build Back Better works to professionalize the ECE field, allowing more teachers like Spooner to achieve a bachelor’s degree, the excitement and readiness is growing among St. Kate’s faculty and staff. They feel the sea change’s imminent arrival, and St. Kate’s is committed to advancing its leadership in the ECE space for years to come.
“Young children form their entire base personalities from birth to five years old, and yet early childhood education is often looked at simply as daycare,” Hassebroek says. “By professionalizing and changing the field through our programs, we’re creating more access for families and greater sustainability for teachers who can achieve more equitable wages for their work. If more of our ECE teachers are better trained, we have the opportunity to do better for our children and for society.”