Jené Chapman: Filling a Need in Nebraska

April 26, 2023

“I come from a long line of educators,” Jené says. “My grandmother was the first Black teacher to work in the Pasquotank public schools in North Carolina. She taught young children. So did my mom, who worked in the field of special education. And listening to their stories inspired me to be a teacher when I grew up. I found other role models when I went to Head Start as a child. Though I was scared at first, the warmth and love my Head Start teachers gave me eased my fears. By the time I went to grade school, I felt confident and equipped to face any challenges that might lie ahead,” Jené says. “My high school teachers also helped by mentoring me into my adult years. And since then, I have strived to give all young children the strong foundation I received from the phenomenal women in my life.”

Jené now follows their example as a program specialist with the Nebraska Department of Education Office of Early Childhood Training Center. She moved into this role after gaining real-life experience in the early childhood classroom, where she helped children achieve more than anyone ever expected, including a child named Ronnie who melted her heart.

“He was the cutest little boy ever,” she recalls, “but he couldn’t control his emotions and constantly had to go to the principal’s office.” Many parents of the other children in the class wanted him expelled. But Jené refused to give up on him. “Now he’s in college, where he plays football,” Jené says, “and I’m still in touch with his mom. She sends me pictures of him and thanks me for giving her son a chance and not shoving him away.”

Seeing children like Ronnie succeed makes Jené feel like she also has succeeded. “I have students I taught in preschool who are now graduating college,” she says. “I see pictures of them on Facebook, and it warms my heart to know I inspired them to surmount the roadblocks they faced. Sometimes it wasn’t easy for her, Jené admits, but she has always drawn strength from her favorite Bible verse: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” They’re words Jené keeps in mind when she’s feeling overwhelmed.

She also thinks a lot about the advice she received from one of those phenomenal women in her life. “The key to working with children lies in your heart,” Jené explains. “You have to love each child as if they were your own, as my mother told me. You need to have faith that children can overcome challenges to succeed, a lesson I work now to pass on in my work with the early childhood workforce in Nebraska.”

After more than 10 years in the classroom, Jené took on her current role guiding educators toward professional growth and working with partners nationwide to build a diverse early childhood workforce. “My long-term goal was always to be an administrator,” she explains, “because I wanted to make a bigger impact than I could as a teacher. I knew I had to work with the people who work with young learners and get a central message out: success in the classroom starts in your heart.”

Jené is also striving to spread another message as she works to build the qualified workforce that Nebraska needs to address a serious child care shortage, especially in rural parts of the state. “There are many different opportunities for training, mentoring and building a child care business,” she says. “But providers are often too busy to be aware of the ways they can develop their careers. So, we try to get the word out through email blasts and by working with the state Department of Education or Health and Human Services. We send licensed staff to do recruitment for PD Specialists and teachers. We hold community meetings to reach even more folks who might be interested in entering the ECE profession.” And this is a broad community concern, she points out, because the state’s economy needs child care to thrive.

“State funding is there to support Nebraska’s child care workforce and help them advance as professionals in ECE,” she says. “Still, sometimes people are nervous about getting the training they need if they don’t speak English well or haven’t been to school in a long time. So, you have to encourage them to put their foot forward and take the first step by making sure they know about all their options, especially the chance to earn a Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™.

Jené’s colleagues across the state concur on the value of the credential and she’s brought them together in a roundtable to help more people earn their CDA®. “The CDA,” Jené explains, “is one of the most valuable credentials educators can have. It’s the first, best step into the ECE field, and it also gets people interested in learning more. Once they have earned the credential, they believe they can go on for higher degrees and that opens even more doors.”

The Nebraska CDA Roundtable has put together a plan to fling those doors open wide by knocking down the barriers that prevent people from earning a CDA®. “Phase one of the plan,” Jené says, “was building a framework for pathways to the CDA® in high schools, colleges and training organizations. Then in phase two, we formed a partnership with the Council and we’re working together to build up the network of PD Specialists candidates need to complete the CDA process. In addition, we’re working with different education and training groups to provide candidates with more coaches and mentors statewide.”

This is especially crucial in rural Nebraska, where child care is scarce, making it hard for local businesses to attract workers. That’s the reason Jené is so excited about the high school pathway. “It’s a way for young people to enter the workforce fresh out of school and a way for communities to grow their own providers. Once the high schoolers earn their CDA®, they can find a local job, continue going to school and hopefully stay in the place where they grew up. So, we think the high school CDA® may serve to narrow the child care gap in the most underserved, least prosperous parts of the state.”

It’s an ambitious plan and putting it into action requires Jené to fill a wide range of roles. She maintains a database of resources for the early childhood field in Nebraska. She creates research briefs for educators and members of her staff. She develops, supports, and implements training for early learning providers. She gives technical assistance to child care trainers. And she collaborates with people from the Nebraska Department of Education, other state agencies, outside organizations and local faith leaders to strengthen the state infrastructure of quality early childhood services and training programs.

When she comes to the table with these groups, she’s often the only person of color in the room, and that’s something she’s trying to change. “We need to make sure all people are part of the conversation and have a part in making decisions that affect our state,” she says. “They should have a voice, whatever their religion, ethnicity or gender. So, I take every chance I get to speak out for diversity in representation, and we’re making some progress.”

Jené is also encouraging more women of color to speak out through Winning Women and Teens, an organization she formed at her church. “We provide uplifting conferences and workshops to help women discover their purpose, how to pursue it and what’s holding them back” she says. “Then when the conferences are over, we continue to work with attendees to provide them with concrete support. We assist struggling mothers who can’t afford diapers, find child care or get the counseling they need. We have a network of people who share our mission, and we can call on them to give moms the help they need.”

Her commitment to supporting women reflects her long-term passion for the early childhood field. “I noticed early on that you help children best by starting with the parents. Then you need to work with the people who play the second-biggest role in children’s lives: their early childhood teachers. That benefits everyone in the state,” as Jené explains, “so I’m sitting down with community members to talk about how they can market their businesses to potential employees. We need to make sure the workforce is strong beyond the urban pockets of the state.”

A strong workforce is a diverse workforce, she explains. That means we need to promote equity and inclusion as we fill the need for early child hood teachers. “Families want educators who look like them and understand their culture.” And helping a wide range of rising teachers earn their CDA® can help, Jené is convinced. “We need to pour our energy and money into helping our educators thrive so they can pour their hearts into serving families and children.” When we make wins for our early childhood teachers, Jené believes, Nebraska wins, too.

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