Date: Mon, Apr 17th, 2023

Great Falls College offering early childhood education program in fall

Amber Johnson, an employee at TLC-Great Falls College, is excited Great Falls College MSU is offering a series of stackable credentials in early childhood education beginning in the fall.

Amber Johnson started working at TLC Center-Great Falls College simply as a way to work and be with her daughter.

Almost two years later, it has become a career, and she’s interested in pursuing a degree in early childhood education.

But the academic fit has to be right.

“I think it will be an awesome thing for (Great Falls College) to offer the early childhood classes because online is very complicated and is very stressful,” said Johnson, who has looked into options such as University of Montana Western’s online program where other TLC Center employees have taken classes.

So, Johnson was excited to learn Great Falls College MSU is starting a series of stackable credentials in early childhood education this fall, beginning with a one-semester certificate of technical studies, a one-year certificate of applied science and a two-year associate of applied science degree. Those with an associate degree can transfer into the University of Montana Western’s early childhood education bachelor’s degree program if they so desire.

“It will benefit our staff having the option to take those classes at the college, even if they don’t get a full-on early ed degree,” said Alexandra Olson, assistant director of TLC Center-Great Falls College. “That gets them a significant pay raise. The first CDA (childhood development associate credential) is 20 cents (an hour), the second CDA is 80 cents.”

Students can earn hours and work experience towards their CDA credential in the one semester certificate of technical studies track. Like many other childcare facilities, TLC Center, which operates two locations in Great Falls, requires its staff members to get their CDAs within a year of being hired.

“I think it’s important for our families,” said Crystal Kist, director of TLC Center-Great Falls College. “They pay a lot for childcare. It’s a lot. They should have high standards of us. They want to know (it) is benefitting their children in the long-term. The first five years are critical for education.”

It benefits childcare facilities to have their staff members complete classes in early childhood education because it is one of the areas by which they are scored on the Stars to Quality scale, which signals to parents the quality of a childcare facility.

“It looks at whether we are maximizing every minute with a child, educating them, or just keeping them busy,” Kist said.

She also is hopeful that having the college offer an early childhood education program will bring more credibility to those who work in the field.

“The big thing that we talk about is professional framework,” Kist said. “People don’t look at us as professionals. They look at us as baby-sitters. At least once a month, we get called baby-sitters or attendants. So, having that right next door is one step closer to that professional status and being recognized.”

“At Great Falls College, we are pleased to be able to offer this face-to-face option for Early Childhood Development classes,” said Cynthia Stevens, department chair of fine arts, humanities and education at Great Falls College. “We heard the need from the community and have been able to take action to fill the need.  We look forward to welcoming this group of early childhood educators to campus. They will enrich the culture of education for all ages that we have at Great Falls College MSU.”

Deb Huestis, professional development specialist at Family Connections, echoed Stevens’ thoughts.

“We are so excited that this effort has come to fruition,” Huestis said. “We have heard from many providers over the years that they would like an in-person option to further their education.  Not only does it allow them to further their knowledge base and raise the profile of early care and education, but it allows them to build relationship with their peers and build a support network. Many home-based providers work alone and the chance to collaborate with others, sharing ideas and struggles will help so much with self-care and the avoidance of burnout. This field is tough and often not appreciated for the foundation it lays for children’s future and the health of the community.”

Johnson was in a conversation with Kist recently about going back to school.

“Having a degree increases our wage,” Johnson explained. 

“Yeah, you need to be compensated and, unfortunately, this is a low-paying field,” Kist said. “It’s something we want to advocate for our staff: ‘Go out and get that education and make the money you deserve to be making from that.’”

“Getting an education will help draw a clearer line with parents, that we aren’t just baby-sitters,” Johnson added. “We are providing an education and preparing kids for school.”

Kist also told her that it’s important for Johnson to be a role model for her daughter.

“You are raising a young lady, and getting that degree tells her that you are here for her, here for all of the other kids in the building,” Kist said. “It says, ‘I’m devoted to this,’ and I think it’s a good role model for your child too. Education is important. We can’t preach it to our kids if we don’t follow it ourselves.”

Contact Great Falls College at 406-268-3700 or if you are interested in learning more about the early childhood education program the college will be offering this fall.

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Record Number: 814