Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Helping High School Students Soar

May 25, 2022

Dr. Bisa, as she’s fondly known, has devoted herself to helping others teach young children. During close to three decades in the early childhood field, she’s always looked for ways to broaden the pipeline of qualified teachers. The pursuit of this goal has taken her from the grade school classroom to the halls of higher ed, where she’s served as both an administrator and instructor. She’s been a first-grade teacher, college professor and dean, lab school director, Head Start center manager and owner of a consulting firm, Ideal Earning Learning. Along the way, she’s found time to write bestselling books for teachers and create the WINGS Curriculum, an innovative system to guide children from infancy through the preschool years.

And there’s been a big, consistent ideal behind Dr. Bisa’s wide-ranging career. “Every time I moved on, it was to fix a kink or clog in the pipeline so rising teachers could keep advancing in their careers,” she says. And building a qualified ECE workforce also serves her broader goal to advance equity in early learning. As president of the Black Child Development Institute in Atlanta, she strives to raise the quality of education settings so that all children have the chance to learn in safe, healthy ways. “We focus on children from birth to 8 years old,” she says, “and work with parents and teachers to make sure they have resources and support to serve young, Black children in culturally responsive ways. We offer literacy and nutrition programs, run a family empowerment program, and instruct adults on how to help children succeed.”

Dr. Bisa’s approach to professional training draws on her background teaching both young and adult learners. “The similarity,” she says, “is that adults and children alike need to know that what they’re learning relates to experiences they’ve had in real life. The instruction needs to be meaningful for them, so they don’t just want to do research and write papers. Adults want engagement, just like children. So, I work with teachers in small groups and do hands-on activities, just like I’ve done with children. The teachers simply love it, and they learn so much more this way.”

And this hands-on approach to professional training is one of the hallmarks of the Child Development Associate® (CDA), so Dr. Bisa has long been a big fan of the credential. “I love that it’s a national and even an international credential. Ghana, Egypt and China have CDA® programs, so you can go there, and they’ll recognize your credential. You can also go to most states, and the CDA will qualify you for work and often transfer into college credits if you choose to go on with your education.”

The benefits of the credential convinced Dr. Bisa to begin teaching CDA courses about 20 years ago to community groups in Albany, Georgia, an experience that showed her the value of a CDA as a strong first step to careers and further education. “In 2012, I taught a mom and early educator named Lakeisha McClendon, who still sticks out in my mind,” Dr. Bisa recalls. “She wanted to work in ECE, so she enrolled in a community-based CDA program sponsored by United Way of Greater Atlanta, and the training spurred her to learn more about the development of young children. She went on to earn her Technical Certificate of Credit (TCC), early childhood education diploma, associate and bachelor’s degree, and now she’s working on her master’s. She’s also advancing her profession by serving on the CDA Advisory Committee, where she provides input on the Council’s policies, programs and projects.”

Like Lakeisha, Dr. Bisa also has a strong connection to the Council. “It’s deepened over the course of several years as I’ve spoken at Council convenings and helped the Council with several of its events and programs, including the high school CDA,” as she explains. And Dr. Bisa has been essential to this effort as key author of the CDA Handbook for High School. This comprehensive guide to advocacy and implementation reflects Dr. Bisa’s first-hand experience bringing the credential to Gwinnett County, Georgia, where she served as a high school CTE instructor.

“The Georgia Department of Education had already approved the CDA as an ECE pathway when I began thinking about a pilot program for Gwinnett County Public Schools,” Dr. Bisa recalls. “But the high schools in my county were only providing courses in ECE, not those that led to the CDA. It took me three, long years to get funding for the program. Still, the effort was worth it since I was able to secure a state grant that paid for students’ books, portfolio materials and application fees. There was even enough to give the students a stipend.”

The implementation of the program was a great success, judging from the community’s response. “I took my high school students to a child care center across the street, where they did puzzles with the children and read to them,” Dr. Bisa says. And the high schoolers were such a hit that many of them found after-school jobs with the program, where they brought a special spark of excitement to their work. “High schoolers have a lot of imagination and they’re still almost children themselves, so they relate well to our youngest learners”—just a couple of the traits that make our high school CDA students an answer to the child care shortage.

“Their minds are open to the opportunities in the profession,” Dr. Bisa says, “since they’re not thinking as much about money as adults tend to do. And sure, you might start in the early childhood classroom at minimum wage, but that doesn’t mean you’ll stay there. And I helped my high schoolers see this by bringing in guest speakers who talked about how their credential could open doors into jobs in administration, research and community service. My students loved hearing about all the opportunities out there, and we need more young people like them to get excited about the ECE profession.”

One of the ways to spark interest is by smoothing their path toward advancement and ensuring their credential counts for college credit, something that’s not always true. “In some states, you may have to start all over again when you earn your associate degree and then all over again when you go for your bachelor’s,” Dr. Bisa says. “So, one of the things I did in my work at the university level was ensure that all ECE credits students earn from high school count toward their four-year degree. It took three different articulation agreements, but it got done.”

Another of her goals is to make sure that the people teaching our high school ECE students have experience in the field, like they do in most CTE programs. “The culinary arts instructor is usually a chef, and the auto mechanic has his own repair business,” she says. “But some of the instructors teaching ECE have never worked in an early learning program, and the course content they teach doesn’t reflect the real demands of the profession. So, we need more ECE instructors with real-life experience to get our students workforce ready.”

That’s the way the high school CDA is supposed to work, Dr. Bisa explains. And she advised high schools on how to implement their own CDA programs this month when the Council held the High School CDA Career & Technical Education Coaching, Training, and Assistance Program Launch Event. Dr. Bisa led the free virtual event on the 25th and was available to answer the questions attendees had about moving ahead. “This new program will offer chances to talk with me one-on-one,” she says, “and I think it will make a difference because I have first-hand experience of what it takes to start a high school CDA program. I’m familiar with the reports you must do, the strings you have to pull, and the updates you need to make to the CTE curriculum you already have.”

Tweaking the CTE curriculum was the most challenging part for her, Dr Bisa explains “But I surmounted all the roadblocks because Gwinnett County Public Schools gave me a lot of support in bringing the coursework up to industry standards. They gave me the space to be creative and the freedom to be the professional I am without any issues. They even made me the early childhood lead for the district, so I was able to train other teachers as well.”

And the CDA program received a warm response from the students, as shown during Teacher Signing Day at the district level, Dr. Bisa recalls. “The event attracted a large group of students who said they’d love to teach young children after graduation. And the students had already taken enough coursework to make an informed choice of careers,” as she points out. “When students decide to pursue a CDA, they’re showing us that they’re committed to the ECE field and care about teaching young learners.”

So, we need to support the high school CDA, Dr. Bisa says. “When you provide students with suitable chances to learn, based on best practices in the field, they don’t have to struggle to fly ahead, they soar toward success.” And having more committed young people like this is also a key to building equity in early learning—the mission that’s always been on Dr. Bisa’s mind and still drives her work to move the ECE field to new heights. She knows that giving high school students the chance to earn a CDA is also a way to give our children wings.

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