There is just one semester left to go for a critical program within UNM’s College of Education and Human Sciences (COEHS).
Creating Responsive Educational Avenues for Training Environments in Early Childhood (CREATE EC) is a new interdisciplinary initiative aimed at transforming the COEHS early childhood academic program and professional development approaches. Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in summer 2021, recipients wanted to reinvent the idea of early childhood education. The goal was to co-create a community-informed, multidisciplinary approach that shifts early childhood education to grow educators from our own rural, Indigenous and Spanish-speaking communities.
Together, the UNM Family Development Program (FDP) Director Lois Vermilya, COEHS Associate Professor Alexandra Davis, and COEHS Interim Dean Kristopher Goodrich made it happen. “We’re supporting both the professional growth of faculty, and their passion and energy, and also resources to bring back to the community,” Goodrich said. “This really supports transforming and re-envisioning early childhood in the state.”
Through the Early Childhood Collaborative Leadership Academy developed by this project, three circles of engagement were created, connecting FDP staff, cross-disciplinary faculty, and 19 community partners. The network was designed to unite the overarching goal of addressing early childhood education needs, and finding creative solutions.
“This is the first time in my 20 years in family development that this strong intentional bridge has been built between our center and the college,” Vermilya said. “To find a way to marry the aspirations of our college with an outreach project like ours has been exciting.”
With the help of contacts provided by FDP, Goodrich, Davis and other participants began to connect with dozens of people, across six communities–Hobbs, Gadsden, Farmington, Taos, Las Vegas and the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council. The intention was to listen, and learn about New Mexico needs in early childhood education and care.
“Having community, faculty, and staff collaboration to this level, just gives a whole new creative process to what we might be able to do to impact the workforce for early childhood in the state,” Davis said.
Across the last year and a half, all network partners focused on early childhood education development through a relational learning process that was facilitated as a dynamic community of practice that aimed to discover what could be done better.
“Connecting UNM with the community in a deeper way to revitalize early childhood education is important because we're going from the ground up. We’re doing it with professionals and the community, not just the college." –COEHS Associate Professor Alexandra Davis
The first refinement is curricular programming. After receiving feedback, COEHS faculty and FDP are adding to educational areas that would be of use for New Mexico's early childhood professional development as a whole. This included new courses and will result in the future development of a COEHS distributed minor.
“We’re really thinking about supporting existing programming and how to add to that programming, for more real-world applications, so that folks can come out and do what they need to do,” Goodrich said. “It allows pathways and support for our university students to get that knowledge and see the building blocks in learning that really starts in early childhood.”
“The path that we've set out on for our early childhood education is seeking to marry professional development and academic credits in some very doable ways,” Vermilya said.
The innovation supports statewide early childhood educators by offering professional development in new, accessible, distance learning ways. The leadership academy is co-designing hybrid options, with the help of the relaunched Institute for Professional Development. In addition to flexible hours to accommodate time in a virtual classroom, there are new kinds of platforms offered which can be connected to stackable credits.
“The learning across all parts of the initiative really makes relevant what professional development needs to be for New Mexico and what can we do to enhance academics for a field that's exploding,” Vermilya said.
Goodrich says there is also a top focus placed in the deliverables of the project–the children of New Mexico they ultimately aim to serve.
“Part of the hope is to re-envision education in the college, because our college in the past has been very K-12 focused and not as much from birth to age 5,” Goodrich said. “We want to transform the college to really support not just those folks in our traditional K-12 schools but the full workforce of those who engage with families and education across the lifespan–especially in those very early and incredibly important formative years.”
The final element which has made this academy a success is the focus on learning with community partners through their development of needed community projects. COEHS faculty and FDP are engaged alongside community professionals as on the ground immersion in what the field really needs.
“It’s education parallel practice,” Vermilya said. “What you do with each other models the practice that you do with parents and children.”
Projects within each of the six locations centered on a variety of topics, depending on the need. While some communities placed a focus on social and emotional learning, others focused on connecting educational networks.
“This is driven by the community, and we are supporting that pact so we can have real-world revitalization in some ways of how we prepare early childhood leaders,” Davis said.
The Hobbs team hosted community conversations as a major dialogue series on racism, while the Gadsden group improved safe places to stop in between long rural distances for home visitors, and the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council created an activity book meant to educate on the importance of early childhood and the preservation of Native culture.
“So much of why this is successful and how we’ve done so much work is we've established really strong relationships across these circles,” Davis said. “We’ve been working closely and intensely with this group of 44-ish people for a year and a half. That’s allowed us to establish trust and develop these relationships so they're not just surface-level work relationships.”
That’s not always the case, either, Vermilya said.
“That's not always what happens with communities and universities and partnerships. Yet this has been done so over and beyond, it’s an invitation to collaboratively shape learning with what the field really needs. I think what lies there for the future is very promising,” she said.
While the connections made provided a whole new realm of possibilities, the leadership academy team believes they have also found the top issues they have yet to scratch the surface of.
“We’ve discovered early identification and early intervention are really areas that need to continue to be supported and explored in the state because there's not been enough attention,” Goodrich said.
That includes equity from early childhood providers, gaps in training for students with disabilities, training in monolingual Spanish, and social-emotional learning.
“We're just realizing all of these gaps that we need to focus on in early childhood. That impacts their academic trajectory well into the future,” Davis said.
While taking these facts back to the COEHS and an upcoming summit, the team is aiming for a continuation of progress even beyond the grant’s timeline, and to expand to more areas.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” Vermilya said. “Communities are pretty excited about what this is delivering.”
They hope to engage more communities, expand their reach, and ensure educators are equipped for New Mexico children under the age of five. That goes back to COEHS.
“I think this really celebrates what education and human science is." – FDP Director Lois Vermilya
“It's really time to engage our leadership on some of those transformational conversations and move forward through the evaluation processes,” Goodrich said.
“Having community and faculty and staff just gives a whole creative process to what we might be able to achieve with early childhood in the state,” Davis said.