“We empower people,” says Dr. Mashonda Smith. She serves as dean of the Workforce Development & Lifelong Learning Division at the University of the District of Columbia, where they build equity through education. WDLL provides courses or pathways for District residents, especially those who are underemployed or unemployed, so they’re qualified for in-demand fields like construction, health care, hospitality and IT. “Workforce development is at the crux of everything we do since it’s the economic engine in communities nationwide,” Smith explains.
And families can’t work without child care. So WDLL also offers an early childhood education pathway that allows students to earn a Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. “People need certified assistant teachers like those who’ve earned a CDA®,” Smith says. The CDA is a hallmark of quality in teaching. “It’s also an entry point into the early learning profession and the first rung on the ladder for those who want to rise in the field.”
Earning a CDA can take you far, as Professor Tracee Billingsley tells the students she guides on their path to success in ECE. She’s committed to them because ECE is “a calling” for her, as she explains. “My family always had a strong belief in education and my grandmother owned and operated a family child care while I was growing up. I followed in her footsteps by working in a wide range of child care centers and earning a CDA,” Billingsley recalls. She went on to coach other teachers, earn a BA and an MA, leading to a blend of knowledge and know-how she passes on as an ECE professor at UDC.
She has support from committed colleagues like Madeline Levy Cruz, associate dean of WDLL. Levy Cruz no longer spends time in the classroom, but she, too, has real-life experience in the ECE field. “I have taught in early childhood centers and my mom ran a child care center during my teenage years, so I have very fond memories of tikes running around our home,” she recalls.
Levy Cruz also has many memories of the students she’s talked with during her 20 years in the field of education. “I’ve spent most of my career doing administrative work,” she explains, “but my real joy is when I can sit down one-on-one with a student to hear their story. And one of my priorities at UDC is to make sure we are giving our students every possible chance we can to complete their CDA.” That matters because the people she and her colleagues serve aren’t your traditional college students.
“They already have experience in life and work,” Levy Cruz says. “Many of them are adults with children, and they’re going to school while holding a job. They face challenges that include finding affordable housing and putting food on the table each day. Some don’t speak English, or they have trouble reading. We understand all that. So, we’re not here to put any more stumbling blocks in their way. We’re here to help them get a credential and the skills they need to succeed.”
It helps that WDLL has funding from the city and other grants to offer the CDA at no cost to all residents of the District. The students’ books are free. Their instruction is free. The exam is free. And it all fits in with the division’s mission to help people find careers without accruing tremendous debts from college loans. “So, when I talk to CDA students,” Levy Cruz says, “I always tell them you didn’t sign up for this because you love studying three hours a night and you’re dying to take a test. You’re doing this because of the end game, which is that credential and that job,” a goal that doesn’t just benefit those who earn a CDA. “It also helps communities in DC when there are teachers who can provide high-quality experiences for children.”
A lot depends on students succeeding in earning their credential, so Levy Cruz urges CDA students to press on when they feel discouraged. “I know the impact they can make. So, I tell students to take a picture of how you see yourself when you’re done with this and put it on your bedroom wall. I also urge them to find a buddy or connect with a teacher, somebody who’s going to pull you up when you think this is too much for me.”
Billingsley is one of the caring teachers who students can count on, especially since she’s been through the CDA process and knows the value of the credential. “It provides foundational skills,” she says, “since the students have courses that mix theory with hands-on practice. That allows new teachers to pull it all together when they first go into the classroom. It also provides context for those who are currently working in the field. They’re able to see the reasons for doing certain things each day to provide children with high-quality experiences,” she explains.
And she provides them with a lot of support while they’re working toward their CDA. “Some of these students come in,” she says, “and feel like they’re just not going to be able to do it. So, I tell them that your biggest fear is your fear of being great. But you can do this. I don’t want you to feel defeated before you begin the process. I’ll even work with you after class if you’re serious about earning a CDA.”
Some of the students do need that extra encouragement and help, as Billingsley explains. “They might be older, already hold jobs or have special needs that no one has ever diagnosed or noticed. For example, I had a student who just got writer’s block, and that’s a problem because there’s a lot of writing involved when students do their competency statements or put together their portfolio for the CDA, requirements the student was convinced she couldn’t meet. Each time she would sit down and try to write, she would get stuck. So, I told her I’m going to probe and ask you questions. Then you just tell me the answers and I’ll type them out.”
This type of personal assistance from instructors is important, as Smith points out. “So, we make sure to hire instructors who understand that they’re not serving superstar students, the ones who’ve earned straight As. Instead, these are the students who may have dropped out and are fearful of academics. School is not their favorite place because they’ve been labeled and had bad experiences while there. So, we need to show them that this is a new day and a chance to change. We want them to know they can get through this.”
And Billingsley guides students ahead by providing them with a little extra TLC. “It’s something everyone needs,” she says, for a wide range of reasons. “Students might have trouble finding someone to watch their kids while they go to class, time might be an issue. Work schedules might be an issue. Reading might be an issue, especially since there’s a marked literacy gap in DC. And technology might be an issue, like it was for two of my students. They were using library computers to do their work and wanted to make some edits. When I asked them if they’d saved it on a flash drive, they drew a blank. It turned out they were retyping everything each time they made changes, so I told them we’d get them some flash drives.”
Whatever the issues students face, WDLL tries to smooth the way by making accommodations. “We have our own student success team,” Smith says. “We have academic advisors. We have career counselors and we’re now in the process of rolling out new career development activity courses and ways for students to get one-on-one support on how to prepare to show up in front of a potential employer.”
And as an employer, WDLL is striving to meet the needs of the diverse student body that it serves: Latino, French-speaking, Ethiopian and more, Smith says. “We’re looking to recruit and hire more bilingual instructors since there’s a growing number of bilingual and multilingual children in the District. We’re also looking to partner with other organizations that are already serving specific groups and populations,” Smith says. “And “one of the areas that we are looking into is offering the CDA course in Spanish,” Levy Cruz adds. “It’s still in its inception phase, but we want to make this a priority at WDLL.”
They’d also like to see more students go beyond their CDA to gain added degrees. And some already have, like a middle-aged student Billingsley recently taught. “She had struggled in high school and dropped out before earning her GED as an adult,” Billingsley recalls. “And when I first met her, she was still trying to find her footing in our program. But she loved working with children, especially those with special needs. So, she was determined to get her CDA and then go on. She just needed a little encouragement and help, which I provided by working with her one-on-one twice a week after class. She earned her CDA and is now finishing her AA at UDC,” Billingsley says.
“That student is one of my success stories, and another was a student who didn’t seem at all serious or promising at first. She used to talk on the phone in class and I had to tell her that wasn’t okay since we had work to do. But she got it together. She passed her CDA exam and was one of the first in her class to hand her portfolio in. Now she’s working as a lead teacher at a child care center.”
Billingsley wants all her students to enjoy this kind of success, so she takes extra steps to find out where they’re coming from and where they want to go in their careers. “In my curriculum,” she explains, “I added a journal piece for each functional area of the CDA that we go through. In it I ask them questions about their experiences in school, who made you feel bad or who supported you, and what are the areas you struggle with. It’s touching to read their responses and I always thank them for sharing the truth about their lives.”
Many of these students didn’t have the support they needed while growing up, as Smith points out. “And that gap is getting wider between the haves and have nots in DC.” And many CDA students are confronted with not having enough for themselves, their children and families, and their community. “Still, they want to participate actively in society. They want to contribute to the community where they live.” And for adults who confront gaps, earning a CDA at no cost can lead to tremendous gains.
“Like all workforce development programs, the CDA program at UDC is about intervention. And we’re not just talking about a job,” Levy Cruz says. “We’re talking a career that could be life-changing for our students. It could impact them in ways that build the future for generations within their family”—and other families, too, since the sooner we intervene the better. “Earning a CDA helps people become better teachers,” Billingsley says, who can fill some of the gaps that today’s young learners face. It empowers teachers so they can empower the children they serve.
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