Nurturing a strong start
College plays essential role in preparing Yakima Valley’s early childhood educators
Caring for children and helping them get a strong start in life is in Kathy Gil’s blood.
At age 13, she started volunteering at her mother’s daycare center in Yakima and became a paid employee just three years later. She’d go on to become a lead teacher before deciding to open up her own daycare.
To do so, Gil knew she needed to earn her state certification in early childhood education. Like many early education professionals in the region, she turned to Yakima Valley College’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) program.
Gil started YVC’s program in September 2021, first earning her state initial certificate before stacking on additional certificates in general ECE and infant/toddler care.
“It was helpful to get a lot of background in how children think and learn and play,” Gil said. “It’s very practical knowledge and I liked that I was part of a classroom with a lot of group discussions with other people working in childcare.”
In October 2022, she opened Kathy’s Early Learning in Yakima, where she cares for a dozen children.
“I love being able to provide a safe place for children and offer a place for them to be creative,” says Gil. “There are so many ways to learn and teach. I love to see children grow and learn and I love communicating with families about what their children’s needs are.”
Meeting a need
Across the nation and in Central Washington, finding quality childcare can be a challenge for many families. YVC plays a crucial role in expanding the pipeline of early learning professionals in the region, including creating partnerships with a number of childcare providers.
Education Instructor Teresa Lewis said students in the college’s ECE program come from across the region, with most already working in the industry. The college offers both stackable certificates designed to meet Washington state requirements in ECE professional development as well as an associate degree.
“Our focus is providing the training for students to become excellent providers in the industry as well as meet their career goals to advance their knowledge or earn promotions,” said Lewis.
The college works closely with community partners that provide early learning services to find out what their needs are and tailor coursework to address emerging topics and issues specific to certain providers or communities.
For example, Lewis noted that feedback from the program’s advisory board of community stakeholders led to ECE faculty adding a social-emotional learning class and a STEM class to the requirements for the college’s associate degree.
“We learned early on that we have to grow our own. Let’s get our teacher assistants and transportation assistants more confident and grow them and that also strengthens their commitment to us because we invested in their education.” — Mamie Barboza, EPIC executive director
The college has also developed cohorts with childcare providers like EPIC, a nonprofit organization providing preschool services to approximately 1,500 families throughout Central Washington.
Mamie Barboza, EPIC’s executive director, noted that the organization had been struggling to find and retain staff with the required education credentials. Looking for a solution to that perpetual challenge, EPIC decided to reach out to YVC for help.
The result was the creation of a cohort program in summer 2019 to help current EPIC staff members earn their ECE certificates to move into a classroom position or to advance to a higher position.
“For those of us who haven’t gone through higher learning, there can be a lot of barriers to people,” Barboza said. “Many are the first in their family to go to college. They might be worried about not knowing who their classmates or their instructors will be. Even things like wondering where do I park.”
To remove those obstacles, students in the cohort are able to take classes at an EPIC facility, from EPIC staff members who are also YVC adjunct instructors.
“We really appreciate the opportunity to go this route and remove those barriers for people,” Barboza said. “That’s what we’re in the business of doing for our families and that’s what we want to do for our staff as well.”
So far six cohorts of EPIC employees have earned their certificates through YVC with some of those continuing on to work toward their associate degree.
Barboza said it’s been a game changer for EPIC because low wages in the early learning field make it challenging to attract someone who’s already earned their associate degree.
“We learned early on that we have to grow our own,” she said. “Let’s get our teacher assistants and transportation assistants more confident and grow them and that also strengthens their commitment to us because we invested in their education.”
Lorna Vaca has been with EPIC since 2011 and serves as a receptionist at its Castlevale Head Start site in Yakima. She occasionally had to step into a classroom or for a home visitor and the opportunity to earn her initial ECE certificate has given her a boost of confidence.
“I learned a lot of new things that help me with my interactions with children and families,” Vaca said.
“I want [my students] to be successful in this course and give them tools they can take back with them to support the children they’re serving.” — Teresa Mendoza-Casby, Early Childhood Education instructor
Since EPIC operates a number of childcare programs with various requirements, being part of a cohort with staff from those different programs also has been helpful for Vaca.
“I learned more about what it available with our other programs and so I can share that with families who ask me about the other programs we offer,” Vaca said.
Maria Barajas, EPIC’s human resources director and ECE adjunct instructor, said the coursework students take covers practical topics such as health and safety, including how to support the families they serve. It also explores best practices in ECE and has them develop their individual teaching philosophy.
“We have a ton of specific performance standards, but we also get into discussions of why we do things in a certain way, or how did our own childhood affect us and our work,” Barajas said. “We want them to think deeply about why they’re in the workforce and what impact they can have.”
And once they have their state initial certification, they’re ready to be promoted.
“That boosts their confidence and we’ve heard from staff that they’ve felt a lot more proud of themselves and what they’ve accomplished,” Barajas said. “I think our partnership with YVC has benefitted the early learning community as a whole. We’ve had staff who’ve then gone on to other positions in the workforce.”
In order to better serve the Yakima Valley and its communities, the college also offers an ECE cohort specifically designed for Spanish-speaking students and, for the first time this January, partnered with the Yakama Nation to offer a cohort with classes at the Toppenish Learning Center.
Teresa Mendoza-Casby, instructor for the Yakama Nation cohort, said the 15 students in the cohort are all currently teachers and care providers at the Little Legends Learning Center in Toppenish, licensed by the Yakama Nation Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF).
“I want them to be successful in this course and give them tools they can take back with them to support the children they’re serving,” Mendoza-Casby said. “The rigor of the class is really high, but I also make sure I’m offering the support they need to be successful, knowing that they’re going to school and working at the same time.”
Dominique Vijarro, early learning coach with the Yakama Nation CCDF, said creating the cohort is helping increase the quality of care for children and additional cohorts are planned in the future.
“The Yakama Nation will benefit by raising the bar of educational excellence,” Vijarro said, “which will benefit both our children and our educational community.”
“It’s so great that a lot of the instructors at YVC have worked in the field. They don’t take their teaching lightly, they understand how important it is to serve our children and families.” — Kathy Gil, YVC alum and owner of Kathy’s Early Learning
In just the last couple years, more than 200 providers have earned their ECE certificates through YVC. And while many students start by earning their initial certificate required to start their career, the value of their coursework leads many to continue their educational journey.
“They can see how what they’re learning can be applied in their classroom and impact the lives of kids,” said ECE Instructor Denise Paikuli. “So they want to continue on and keep growing as a professional.”
That’s the case for Gil, who plans to continue her education at YVC in order to continue elevating the quality of care she provides to the families at her daycare.
“It’s so important to have that local option and it’s so great that a lot of the instructors at YVC have worked in the field,” Gil said. “They understand what it’s like to be hands on. They understand what we’re going through and how to relate to us. They don’t take their teaching lightly, they understand how important it is to serve our children and families.”