Sonia Pruneda-Hernandez: Stepping Up to Help Students Succeed

July 21, 2021

A problem at her young son’s preschool led Dr. Sonia Pruneda-Hernandez to find her profession in 1999. At the time, she was living in Jacksonville, FL, where her husband was serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. She had put her 18-month-old son at a well-regarded preschool, so she was shocked at the sight before her when she went to pick him up one day. “He was sitting in a corner, facing the wall and crying,” she recalls. “When I said I was going to take my son home, his teacher told me, ‘You can’t take him home until he’s served his time out.’ That didn’t seem right to me, so I went to the preschool director and said, ‘We’re not coming back,’” Sonia recalls with anger still in her voice. The next day, she took the first step on a pathway that would lead her to head a college department in a diverse suburb of Washington, DC.

“I quit my job,” Sonia says, “and contacted the Navy child care program to find out how I could become a family child care provider. The director of the program gave me her full support, and within a month I had the training and licensing I needed to open my home to children. After I went on to complete my CDA®, the director urged me to continue with my education so I could advance. Then a Navy women’s group gave me the scholarship I needed to afford college”—assistance that would lead her to give back as she advanced in her career.

Sonia had completed her bachelor’s degree when her husband’s job took the family to Naples, Italy, where she became the director of a Navy child development center. She also took the next step to go on with her education by attending an online master’s degree program in the U.S. “It was hard because of the time difference,” she says. “I had to get up at three in the morning to do the classes.” But it was worth the effort because she was able to expand her career options beyond the Navy. When her family moved back to the U.S. in 2005, she became the director of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, where she supervised a staff of 32.

One of her goals at Bright Horizons was to ensure all the teachers earned their CDA, and she stepped up to give them all the support she possibly could. She looked for classes in Spanish since many of them were Latinas, and she favored programs that were close and convenient to their homes. When some of the women couldn’t get to their Saturday CDA classes by bus, she would pick them up, wait in her car for them to finish, and then take them home—not exactly part of Sonia’s job description as a center director.

But her experiences led her to empathize with their plight. “It was hard for me to get the education I needed since I had a family and a job. I was working in a family child care and trying to go to school. My husband would deploy to a new post, and I would have to find a new job. Fortunately, I had supportive women in my life, and they helped me get my degrees.”

Their example led her to teach college classes, so she could give more in return for all the guidance and assistance she’d received. “When a job at Montgomery College in Rockville opened up in 2005, I was excited and applied,” Sonia explains. In the years since then she’s advanced from an adjunct professor to the chair of early childhood education, so she doesn’t teach now as much as she used to. Yet her connection to the student body remains strong since she still gives practicum classes and goes to centers to see students interact with children.

Many of them are older, nontraditional students like she was when she first entered the early childhood field. “They’re low paid, and we don’t worry about them enough,” as she points out. “We have the children. We have the teachers, and the teachers need just as much support as the children. They need to get their CDA. They need to get their degrees.” And when they do it’s good for both them and the children. “They’re going to make more money; they’re going to get promoted—and they’re going to be better providers.”

So, Sonia is committed to giving them every possible chance to earn their CDA. “At Montgomery College,” she explains, “I’ve really worked to transform our early childhood program to accommodate the students at hours that work for them. Many of them have day jobs, so we hold the program mainly on evenings and weekends, and we’re fully online.”

That encourages students to keep advancing their education beyond the CDA. “I call it a pathway,” Sonia says. “I tell my students to do their degree in steps because it takes a long time when you have a job. Many of our students need to take breaks, so we want them to have a sense of achievement along the way. The CDA comes first. Then we offer a one-year certificate, after that an AA. And students get something else as they progress since Montgomery College was one of the first colleges in Maryland to accept the CDA for college credit. CDA students earn six college credits—a savings of about $1,500.”

They’re also saving on their CDA application since the Maryland State Department of Education has partnered with the Council for Professional Recognition to cover the cost of credentialing fees and books. “A lot of the college’s students are taking advantage of the grant,” as Sonia is glad to see, especially since she worked to bring it about. “I serve on a Maryland task force that talked about the CDA,” she says, “and how it serves as a pathway into the early childhood field and a degree in higher ed.”

Sonia helps smooth the way by giving Montgomery College students the extra support many of them need. “Montgomery is one of the most diverse colleges in the country and we have a lot of immigrant students. Their English language skills aren’t at college level, so we put them in ESL classes for reading and writing,” she explains. “We started an Early Childhood Student Success Hub a few years back and we meet once a month to hear from outside speakers who give students teaching tips and advice on reaching their goals. We do intensive academic planning with our CDA students and provide a lot of grants so that students don’t have to pay for classes. We also give them advisors to help them move over to the credit side and get their AA at the college.”

But Sonia urges them not to stop with their AA since she knows that early childhood teachers need more highly schooled advocates for their field. “If you want to be a leader, you need an education,” she says. And she inspires her students by taking them on field trips to the Maryland State House, where they can see legislation at work. She also offers them an added inducement by giving them a chance to shape future students in their field. “I tell all my students they can come back and work for me if they get their master’s degree,” she says. “And two of them have taken me up on my offer. They now teach in our program, and one is a PD Specialist for the Council.”

Sonia has many success stories like this since her CDA students have gone on to become certified teachers and center directors. The key is to take it in small steps, as she’ll discuss at the Council’s Early Educators Leadership Conference this fall. “People get overwhelmed when they start thinking about earning a degree,’” she says. “So, the first thing we tell students is to get a CDA. That gives them the sense of achievement they need to get their one-year certificate and go on to earn a college degree.”

Sonia serves as a role model for them because she believes learning never stops. “I do a lot of research to come up with new curricula, courses and grants. I attend a lot of conferences, and last year I earned my doctorate in education. Her dissertation was entitled Minority Child Care Providers’ Perspectives of Barriers to Timely Associate Degree Completion. In it, she pays tribute to the many students who’ve informed her research and inspired her to keep on growing.

“I dedicate this dissertation,” she writes, “to the child care providers, nontraditional students who consistently challenged me to continue my education, just like I challenge them. There may be barriers and challenges along your educational path but remember that there are also many resources and people to help you overcome those hurdles. As students, you have many assets to support you in your journey to obtain a degree.” And Sonia is one of these precious assets who gives students the strength to reach their goals. She has always stepped up to help her students succeed.

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