Phillip White: Keeping the Light in Kids’ Eyes

December 16, 2020

“I once had two students who I called Thelma and Louise because they did everything together,” says Phillip White, president of Theoria Technical College in Carlsbad, California. “They were preschool teachers in their sixties who weren’t very tech-savvy and were scared to go back to school with so many younger students. On the first day of the semester, I happened to stop by their classroom, and they asked me if I could help them set up their computers. So, I jumped in, though our technical rep was there. As I worked with them, they fretted that the screens were too small and that they couldn’t hear the teacher through their headsets. They had all kinds of worries, but I ran around setting things up and managed to put them at ease. Later on, I ran into them in our cafeteria at lunch while one of them happened to be looking at our website. When they saw my picture and realized I was the president of our college, they drew back in shock. ‘You’re the president of the school!’ they exclaimed. ‘So, what are you doing helping out with computers in the classroom?'”

Sure, most college presidents wouldn’t do that, but it comes naturally to Phillip. “I was an officer in the U.S. Navy, and we lead by example. I wouldn’t ask my men to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. So, helping is something I expect everybody to do at my college,” he says. And this hands-on approach is at the heart of Theoria’s mission to be on the leading edge of training in early childhood care and education. As a private institution that specializes in ECE, Theoria offers both an associate degree and training for the Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential.

It’s best known for its accelerated program that allows students to earn their ECE credits fast with two-day lectures, for its commitment to serving students and for its live, interactive, online learning platform. “We’re striving to set the standard for ECE training in the state of California,” Phillip says. And this goal reflects his belief that “we need more teachers who are at the top of their game” so they can make an impact on children.

Phillip showed his own commitment to young learners while he was still serving in the Navy. “I used to volunteer to read at circle time at a preschool in San Diego, and I urged my men to volunteer, too. I found that I loved talking to the kids and seeing the light in their eyes when they learned something new.” The experience also opened his eyes to the demand for qualified teachers, and he decided to do something to fill the need after meeting Elisha Valentine, a licensed family child care provider. She would become his partner at Agafya Consulting Group, a company that they cofounded to build and develop child care centers.

“I learned about ECE on the job while running the centers. There’s no better way since it helps you know the community and understand its needs,” Phillip says. And his background helped make Agafya a success. “When I was in the military,” he says, “I took classes in IT and also worked as a project manager and career counselor. It was an easy transition to building child care centers, staffing them and making sure educators received the right training. I got to marry my passion for management and child care,” he explains. And he was so invested in his new career that he went back to school and earned a degree in ECE.

“Having a formal education helps teachers understand why they’re doing things a certain way,” Phillip says. But it’s hard for many educators to take the courses they need while they’re holding down a job, as he came to see. “Preschool teachers work hard Monday to Friday, which makes it difficult to go to school. Yet you can’t advance in the ECE field without receiving that formal education. So, I wanted to find a way to get them where they needed to be while they remained in the classroom.”

“We started Theoria two years ago with a desk and two phones,” Phillip recalls. “I built our IT platform from the ground, and we began marketing our program to early childhood settings in California. Elisha was our first professor, and we’ve built a great staff of professionals who love what they do and want to infect the next generation of educators with their passion for ECE.”

Theoria mostly draws working teachers from centers, but it’s trying to expand its offerings to attract high school students. “Many high school graduates aren’t working,” Phillip says, “so we’re now partnering with schools to develop a program that will train the students for a job in ECE.”

These high schoolers, like all Theoria students, should be job ready because the college’s curriculum and approach are hands-on instead of academic, as Phillip explains. “Early educators don’t need to know how to write long papers explaining why they might teach in a certain way. They need practical skills that will equip them to stand in front of a group of children and help them be their best.” So, the CDA plays a big part in his program. “When I came across the CDA,” he recalls, “I thought we need to focus on this and make sure we are aligned with its standards. Now 80 percent of our 420 ECE students are working on earning their CDA credential. We have quarterly meetings with the Council for Professional Recognition, and we help spread the word about the credential in an informational newsletter that reaches over 10,000 child development centers.”

Now, Phillip is finding new ways to reach out to centers during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone hit the panic mode at first” he says, “so the best thing Theoria College could do to help the ECE community was to share our expertise and knowledge. My professors all work in the field and they’re involved in a lot of the process of reopening. So, we’re giving seminars on how you can keep teachers and young students safe as they come back to the classroom.”

This community outreach, like all of Phillip’s endeavors, is about serving children. “You never want to see that light going out of their eyes,” Phillip says. So, he wants to put the teachers who serve them in the best position to succeed. And he knows he’s made an impact when he hears from former Theoria students who’ve gone through his CDA training.

Not too long ago, he spoke to his two favorite “outlaws” when Thelma and Louise paid a visit to the college. “They thanked me for getting them through their anxiety attacks and discomfort at being older than the other students. They told me that my professors are impeccable and clearly loved their jobs. They said how much they enjoyed the program, how it inspired them to ask questions and learn—all praise that made me feel good and know I was progressing toward my goal. I want people to know Theoria is here to serve. We take a lot of pride in making sure teachers have all the credentials and tools they need to keep that light in children’s eyes.”

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