Serving DC through the CDA: A Conversation with Esteban Morales

April 23, 2020

Published by CounciLINK on April 23, 2020


Esteban-M“We’re looking at a new generation of children,” says Esteban Morales. “They have all kinds of things their parents didn’t have like Google and iPhones. They have information at the tips of their fingers. So, teaching them is not about filling their minds with facts like the way caterpillars become butterflies or the names of flowers. It’s about teaching them to learn, wiring their brains and putting in the software that allows them to think. That’s what it means to be ready for school.”

Morales helps them be school ready as director of the CentroNía Institute in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC. The institute is the professional development arm of CentroNía, a nationally renowned program that provides affordable, high-quality early education, professional development for educators and family support services in a multicultural, bilingual environment. It spreads a strong sense of community as it serves more than 2,400 low-income children and families in the District and its environs.

The institute’s purpose is to connect cutting-edge research on child development with teaching practices in early childhood education. “We have coaches and a Child Development Associate® (CDA) program,” Morales says, “and we design tools to help our teachers in their practice. We also provide technical assistance to other centers in the city in improving the quality of the early education they provide.”

While working with these centers, Morales saw the need to come up with new instruments and new professional development packages that would help teachers understand brain development in children from zero to five years old. This is the time when the brain makes 90 percent of its neural connections, as research has shown in recent years.

And this finding has led to a paradigm shift in the early childhood field. “For many years,” Morales says, “our field was about caring for children. Now the focus has switched from early care to early learning since we now know that the way young brains make connections depends on the quality of the interactions that children have with adults.”

Children learn more through play with their teachers than through play among themselves, Morales explains. “So, teachers need to play with intentionality. Teachers do very complicated work because they’re wiring someone’s brain. As programmers of that computer, they have a very big job, so they need all the tools — including the CDA — to do it right.” And Morales has the experience and education it takes to bring out teachers’ best.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in special education, a master’s degree in curriculum with a concentration in bilingual special education and another master’s in educational administration. He has 30 years of experience working in the education field in a variety of roles: teacher, coordinator, coach, principal, adjunct professor, educational director and educational consultant. In addition, he has a long and comprehensive background in the development of the brain.

This wealth of knowledge served him well in 2014 when he and his colleague Heriberto Velasquez wrote and published the CentroNía Institute Reflective Practice Approach Toolkit. This valuable resource for early educators boosts their ability to sustain quality teacher-child interactions and create a rich educational setting for children through intentional planning, documentation, assessment and reflection.

These are essential classroom skills that are also covered in the training for the CDA. As a result, “the CDA is one of CentroNía’s biggest programs,” Morales says. “For the past 15 years, the institute has offered the CDA in both English and Spanish because CentroNía is a dual-language program that long served the largely Latino population of Columbia Heights.”

But in recent years, demographic change has led to greater diversity in CentroNía’s staff and in the people they serve. “We now have people from 40 different countries working here,” Morales explains, and the composition of the neighborhood has also changed with the gentrification of Columbia Heights. “Most of the Latino population that used to live around us got pushed to other places like Prince George’s County, MD, because they could no longer afford to live here,” he says. “Meanwhile, we saw an increase in the Ethiopian population and Ethiopian children who learn Spanish and English with us while speaking their own language, Amharic, at home.”

The greater Washington region now has the largest concentration of Ethiopians in the nation, and in 2016 Morales took steps to serve them better by offering the CDA in Amharic. “For years before that,” he recalls, “I had been receiving applications from Ethiopian women who wanted to earn a CDA. Many of them were educated and had been teachers in their country but didn’t have a basic proficiency in English.” This was a problem because the Council for Professional Recognition required people to take the CDA exam in English. So, I had to reject these candidates,” Morales recalls. Then a very special candidate inspired him to train his first cohort of Amharic-speaking CDAs.

One of the Ethiopian moms who came to CentroNía seeking early childhood education for her children made it all possible, he recalls. “Sebawit Yirshaw was very proficient in both English and Amharic, along with Italian, too. She was a student of mine, and she developed a passion for early childhood education.” After earning her CDA, she earned an associate’s and a bachelor’s degree in the field. “After several years, she came back to CentroNía as one of our coaches in centers around the city,” Morales says. She had the education, experience and language skills to teach the CDA in Amharic.

At the time, Morales had a waiting list of Ethiopian women who wanted to earn a CDA, so he went to the Council and laid out his plan for a new CDA program. “I talked to the Council’s CEO, Dr. Valora Washington, and said, ‘I want to do this, but I need your blessing. We can find professional development specialists to assess the students in Amharic, but I need your blessing for them to take the exam in their language.’ She was happy to give me a letter of support, and we became the first organization in the country to do the CDA in Amharic.”

Morales was committed to his new venture as a way to serve both Ethiopian children and their parents. “We had a tremendous need to do this,” he explains, “because the Ethiopian population is only going to grow in our nation. If we look at the CDA as the first stepping stone in the early childhood field, we can help this community find careers.”

Word quickly spread that CentroNía had a CDA in Amharic, Morales says. “It started with moms who had children at our center, and it helped that Sebawit was teaching the classes. Sebawit is well known in her close-knit community, and as soon as people knew she was doing this, the buzz about the new program became louder. TV news from Ethiopia came to interview her and the waiting list kept growing.”

The pilot started in 2016, and a few months ago the first Amharic-speaking cohort earned their CDAs. “This group was incredible,” Morales exclaims. “We started with 30 women and 29 obtained their credential. Granted the process was more complicated than we expected because we don’t have that many PD Specialists who are fully bilingual in English and Amharic. But it worked out in the end.”

And Morales was there to see the candidates along on their road to the CDA. “I taught a couple of classes and Sebawit would translate for me, so I felt like I was at the UN having a simultaneous translator working with me,” he laughs. And by the time of the group’s graduation, he had learned a bit of their language. “I ended my speech with a few words in Amharic and I think they really appreciated it.” Even better, the good feelings went both ways since Morales also admired how invested they were in the program.

As he envisions their future, he’s sure there will be a market for the services they provide, especially at places like Mazique Parent Child Center and Bridges Academy, where there’s a high proportion of Ethiopian-speaking children. And he’s worked to keep up with the demand since a second cohort of Amharic-speaking students is getting ready to earn their CDAs. It’s a first step in the ECE field and another step in CentroNía’s mission to provide high-quality early care and education to the diverse, multicultural families in its community and beyond.

“With this cohort, we hope to further diversify the growing ECE workforce in our region,” Morales says. Now he’d love to expand the program by finding more bilingual teachers to give the classes. He wishes he had “more than one Sebawit,” who stands out for both her polyglot language skills and her passion for the program. “CentroNía is a multicultural center,” Sebawit says, “and this new CDA course in Amharic is a testament to the center’s commitment to all children and families. This is about everybody thriving.”

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