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As the nation’s youngest learners from birth to 3-years-old show literacy gains from Early Head Start and home visiting programs, many childcare providers are reporting increased demand and a troubling shortage of qualified instructors for infants and toddlers.

According to a recent report on early education by the New America Foundation, increased federal funding and tighter focus on accountability “makes home visiting one of the brightest spots of progress in early education over the past five years.” However, the report found neglect in birth-to-3 teacher preparation. While many states offer birth-to-8 teaching licenses or in a few cases, even a 0-to-3 license, teachers of infants and toddlers are rarely required to attain it. Education and training requirements for teachers of the country’s youngest learners remains minimal, the study said.

For early childcare providers in predominately Latino communities, finding credentialed, qualified staff that also possesses bilingual and bicultural skills proves even more daunting, stated a recent report on early childhood in Illinois published by the Latino Policy Forum.

Early education
Parents work with children under the guidance of a home visitor in Gads Hill’s Early Head Start Home Visiting program.

In Chicago, at Gads Hill Center, which serves low-income Latino families, early childhood staff members were thrilled when they recently awarded additional city funding to expand their Early Head Start Home Visiting programs from 50 to nearly 100 children. But, the center struggled to find qualified, bilingual staff for the demanding job. Gads Hill, located in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, ranks as one of the city’s top 10 communities in need of early childhood care.

The Hechinger Report spoke to Azucena Gonzalez, Gads Hill Center’s associate director of programs, about why their home visiting has been successful and discussed strategies for recruiting more bilingual educators as home visitors for the youngest learners.

Q: Why is Early Head Start Home Visiting important for Latino children and parents? And what elements are needed to achieve success with children and their parents?

A: One of the things that we’ve found with the Latino community is that they embrace someone coming into their home because they feel more comfortable in that environment. Having someone that works with them hand in hand, coaching them, modeling things for them, and giving them directives.

We treat them as our partner in the program. We provide tools that they can use. We provide resources and information, so that they can move their children into the early childhood field and see the options that they have available. So, it’s like a taste of early childhood education.

Some of them feel overwhelmed because of all the different options, or because of other factors. Others are not willing to leave their home, or for whatever reason, they don’t know past their neighborhood. So, this allows us to come in very, very respectfully, acknowledge that they are their child’s first and most important teacher, and that they know how they can help their child in their education.

I think the success is the partnership. They don’t feel that we are intimidating. We’re not there to tell them what to do. We’re there to share resources and our experience and the education that we have with them. And they accept it and they embrace it and they thank us for it.

Later, they might decide to go into the 3-to-5 home visiting program or they might decide to move their child to a center-based option. We give them all the options and then we sit down and discuss how this would benefit the child and also the family.

Q: Last year, Early Head Start and Chicago Public Schools revised credential requirements and said home visitors are required to have an associate’s degree in early childhood education. How has that impacted the recruitment and hiring process?

A: I knew at some point they were going to start focusing on home visiting because there is such a great need. Most of these neighborhoods don’t have an actual center. That’s the case here in Brighton Park. There’s no child development center. There may be one or two private day care centers for children 0 to 3. But Brighton Park has basically no resources as far as center-based early education. So, home visiting is their best and sometimes their only option.

When we started the Home Visiting Program in 2008, we looked for bilingual staff that had experience working with kids, working with families. For the most part, they were close to having an AA or they needed a few courses to complete their AA. So, it was a challenge, but not a significant challenge, as it is now.

The real challenge that we faced was more with the Prevention Initiative Home Visiting program because their new requirements are now higher. The parent educator must have a BA. (Prevention Initiative programs focus on children “at-risk” for school failure due to poverty, teen parents, or homelessness.)

We had a staff member who was a Prevention Initiative home visitor who was here for five years. She was close to getting her AA, but she was working her way through school. However she was not close to a BA, so we were forced to lay her off.

Early education
Families served in the Early Head Start Home Visiting program participate in socialization events at the Gad’s Hill Children’s Services Center.

Q: In a way, it is good news that credential requirements for home visitors are being strengthened and enforced. However, at the same time, is it becoming more difficult to find staff with those proper credentials and additional bilingual skills?

A: Yes. But the other issue is there are no financial resources for people interested in being home visitors to get education or professional development, to give them that incentive and we’re going to help you with funding so you can finish your degree and go into the field.

Q: What other qualifications do you look for in hiring a home visitor?

A: The other challenge is also hiring staff that is willing to go into a home and feel comfortable going into a poor Latino neighborhood. And dealing with different issues like gangs, neighborhood challenges, travelling from one home to the next, and sometimes having scheduled a home visit and you go there, you knock on the door and there is no one there. They need to be ready for those challenges.

Q: In a study released by the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers found that low-income Latino communities had far fewer Latino teachers and directors in early childhood centers. A separate analysis of home visiting programs in Illinois found a majority of the state’s home visitors are white, English-speaking and older than the parents served.

What are some strategies for addressing this shortage of qualified, bilingual educators in the early education workforce and home visiting field?

I think the biggest thing is awareness that this is a field that is growing and important. Offering more opportunities for professional development, so that there is an incentive for Latinos to go into the field.

Also, I don’t think anyone knows what really happens in a home visit. For some professionals taking courses in early childhood education, that might sound scary. They don’t know what to expect. So there is a need for more exposure about home visiting as a career option and the benefits for Latino professionals and children alike.

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