Gerri-Lynn Ballard | A Focus on What Counts

April 23, 2024

“I recently received a lovely note from an early childhood teacher,” Dr. Gerri-Lynn Ballard recalls. “In it, she wrote, ‘I can’t thank you enough for your commitment to helping me receive my Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™.” And this teacher spoke for many others who have also had the benefit of Dr. Ballard’s expertise and long experience in ECE. For more than 25 years, she has provided training, research, evaluation and consulting to educators as president and CEO of FOCUS ON CHILDREN, a nonprofit that works throughout Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC.

Recently, FOCUS became a beneficiary of the Maryland Rebuilds Grant to help educators earn their CDA®. To date, Ballard has provided training to 96 people, and 34 have succeeded in earning their CDA, a mark of competence in which Ballard strongly believes. “I tell people that you should earn a CDA if you’re going to stay in the early childhood field,” Ballard says. “I admit to them that it’s a lot of work. But I assure them that it’s worth the effort because I’ve seen the difference a CDA makes.”

Ballard became acquainted with the credential when she began her career in early learning as a military spouse. “Back in 1980, my husband was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County, MD, and I was a young mom,” Ballard recalls. “I enrolled my infant daughter in the base’s child care center and when she was eight months old, I went there to volunteer. I soon rose through the ranks to become a teacher and an assistant child development director until becoming the director of child development programs in 1983. And I was still working at the base in 1989 when the Military Child Care Act required the CDA across all branches of the service. In a brief span of time, it was clear how much earning a CDA helped the teachers work with children.”

Some of the children had behavioral issues as their families moved between installations, as Ballard observed. “Children had to make big transitions when their families went overseas to places like Germany, Korea and Japan. Then, when the children came back to the U.S. at the age of three or four, they needed teachers who could help them adapt to a new learning environment. And CDA holders had the skills required to help these children succeed. That’s why I’ve always been such a big believer in the CDA.”

Ballard is also a big believer in educational TV, an interest she pursued for four years as a coordinator of the Sesame Street Preschool Education Program. “I conducted Ready to Learn workshops that showed Maryland child care providers how to take what children saw on Sesame Street and incorporate it in their early learning practice. We had worksheets and books that providers could use to supplement lessons that children picked up as they watched Big Bird or Elmo on TV,” Ballard says. And the Ready to Learn program led her to work with providers across 23 Maryland counties, where she would set her sights on launching a new stage in her career.

“I decided I wanted to start a business that focused on how children develop,” Ballard recalls. “In the 1990s, there wasn’t enough quality training for teachers, and I felt it was crucial to help children really be ready to learn.” So, Ballard started FOCUS ON CHILDREN to fill the gap in a wide range of ways that providers needed. She now offers consulting services on everything from locating sites to opening and expanding centers, playground design and set-up, staff recruitment and writing handbooks. She assesses programs and provides technical assistance to center- and home-based programs. She conducts workshops for trainers, provides medication training and guides people in earning their CDA, a part of her work to which Ballard is very devoted, she adds. “We work very closely with our CDA candidates because we want them to succeed.” And some candidates need a lot of guidance and support, including one named Sally who stands out in Ballard’s mind.

“Sally struggled in writing her competency statements and didn’t think she was going to pass her CDA exam,” as Ballard recalls. “After taking the exam, she called me in tears and said that her hands were sweating. I managed to calm her down as she waited eagerly for her test results. Then, a few days passed, and I was teaching a class on the weekend, when she burst through the door clutching a congratulations letter and a balloon. ‘The balloon is for you,’ she told me as she broke out in tears of joy at having earned her CDA.”

Sally was able to earn her CDA and start her career in the ECE field, thanks to the Maryland Rebuilds Grant. And Ballard also has students who’ve been in the early learning field for many years, including a 72-year-old woman who earned her CDA nearly 30 years ago. “She had always kept her credential up to date,” Ballard says, “until last year, when she couldn’t afford to renew it. Now she’s getting her CDA back because she has the funding she needs and support from folks who focus on helping teachers succeed.”

CDA candidates like these owe a lot to Ballard’s devoted staff, including Dr. Latonya Debrow-Smalls, a Head Start director and FOCUS instructor who’s thankful for the chance to make an impact in the early childhood field. “I love being part of something greater than me,” she told Ballard in a grateful note. “It’s exciting to see the CDA candidates grow and learn over time. They’re able to use the hands-on knowledge they gain in the program, and it’s exciting to hear how they apply what they learn in my class to their teaching practice.”

Candidates also benefit from the advocacy that FOCUS provides, and former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan even recognized Ballard’s group for its service to providers in the state. “We try to act as a liaison between educators and the Maryland Office of Child Care when a licensing issue is unclear,” Ballard explains. “I intervene on providers’ behalf to ensure they get the respect they deserve from the licensing office and the technical aid they need to comply with regulations,” Ballard says. And her staff members share this commitment to giving providers all the support that they need.

“Working with the CDA team has been a great experience,” says Tawanna Hinton, a child care advocate at FOCUS. “It has allowed me to have positive interactions with different personalities and CDA candidates who I interview in my role. I’ve seen the passion they have for helping children and I’ve realized that it takes a special person to work in the early childhood field.”

Many people with a passion for serving young learners come to the Council’s Early Educators Leadership Conference, and Ballard is often among them. “When my team and I went to the conference last year, we received a lot of information that we were able to share with our candidates and instructors, so we could make our training even better,” she says. Despite her many years in the early childhood field, Ballard is still learning, growing and looking forward to training her next group of CDAs. She does it because of her focus on what counts in the early learning field. It’s bringing out the best in teachers so they can bring out the best in the children they serve.


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