In Leah Spruill’s preschool STEM class at Growing Kids Academy in Spotsylvania County, little fingers tapped at the screens of tablets encased in green protective covers.

Sitting “criss-cross applesauce” on the carpet, the preschoolers were playing with learning apps during “technology time.” Soon, they’d transition to their next activity—finding numbers inside colorful, squishy “sensory bags.”

Spruill and her 3-year-old son, Shawn, made the bags at home the preceding weekend. They filled vacuum-sealed food saver bags with a mixture of tempera paint and vegetable oil. The children would use their fingers to push the paint around inside the bag until they found the number Spruill had written.

“So they’re learning numbers and colors and they’re getting one-on-one time with an adult,” Spruill said. “And it’s a good stress reliever!”

Spruill, 37, has been in the preschool/child care business for years and says she has a passion for the work. She said she’s also been enrolled at Germanna Community College for years but has struggled to complete a degree.

Now, as the recipient of a Project Pathfinders scholarship, she hopes to finally be able to finish her course work and earn her associate’s degree in education with a concentration in early childhood education from Germanna next year.

Project Pathfinders is a program administered by the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and the Virginia Community College System. Its goal is to make it easier for early childhood professionals working in preschools or child care centers to access community college educations.

It is the first state-funded scholarship program for early education professionals, said Karin Bowles, director of strategy for VECF. Funding began July 1 and the first group of recipients took classes last fall. Bowles said funding is in place through June 30, 2018.

“The program is the result of a growing recognition that young children’s brains begin to develop at a very young age, prenatally through three years,” Bowles said. “This is a prime time to influence their development.”

Two out of three children in Virginia have all parents in the workforce, Bowles said, so they are spending time in a day care setting.

“Adults who work with young children need to have competency and skills,” Bowles said.

But many child care workers, like Spruill, encounter barriers in their path to higher education.

“This is a commuter area, so a lot of child care centers are open up to 12 hours a day,” said Carol Clark, executive director of Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area, a local coalition of agencies, businesses and people working to promote early childhood education. “[The teachers] may have a schedule inconsistent with the needs of [school] enrollment.

“It’s very hard work, both physically and mentally. It requires a lot of outside time to ensure that lesson plans are completed and they’re up on the latest trends and materials and practices.”

Most of the workers are parents and are often single parents, Clark said. Carving time away from parenting for school is challenging.

“In addition, there’s the fact that this is a low-paid profession,” she said. “The funding and the time are the biggest barriers [to obtaining higher education], not the want.”

But as studies continue to show the importance of early childhood education to future school and life success, there’s a growing awareness of the need to foster the people providing that education.

“We know through research that the best way to ensure quality in a child care setting is through teacher education,” Clark said. “And so we look for new avenues to provide scholarships and training opportunities for our workforce.”

The Project Pathfinders scholarship pays for recipients to take two classes a semester—either online, in the classroom or a combination of both—at a Virginia community college. It also covers textbook costs and fees. Recipients can reapply for successive semesters.

The scholarship is available to anyone in Virginia employed in a child care or preschool setting—whether it be full-day, half-day, for-profit, nonprofit, faith-based or in-home. Applicants need a letter of support from an employer and priority is given to applicants working with at-risk children.

A LIFE IN CHILD CARE

Spruill said she grew up in the business of early childhood education.

“My experience is pretty much my whole life,” she said.

Her mother ran an in-home day care at their house in Dale City.

“The school bus stopped in front of our house and pretty much the whole bus would get off,” she said. “We were an after-school haven.”

She said she learned the basics of what is now popularly known as a “homegrown curriculum”—using the home as a classroom and materials found in the home to create learning tools—from her mother. The sensory bags she made at home are an example.

“It’s putting a personal touch on your curriculum,” she said.

For 10 years, Spruill owned Always Sonshine Learn and Play, a child care facility in Spotsylvania. A little more than a year ago, the building was destroyed in a fire.

After that, she worked as a substitute teacher for Spotsylvania County Public Schools. She was able to work in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, where she could observe children transitioning from the early childhood world she had just left. The experience highlighted for her the importance of early childhood education.

“If the children went into kindergarten not knowing their basics—letters, numbers and shapes—they’re already behind,” she said.

Early childhood education lays the foundation for all future learning, Clark said. According to the Smart Beginnings website, investing now in early childhood development yields tremendous economic and social benefits by reducing crime and welfare dependency while building a competitive, productive workforce.

It’s an important job but a demanding one. Spruill said she sleeps well at night.

“I have parents ask me all the time, ‘How do you do it?’ “ she said. “The answer is, you have to have a heart for it. Otherwise, there’s no rhyme or reason for it.”

GETTING OUT OF A RUT

Spruill said that preschool teachers often find themselves stuck in a rut. In order to maintain their basic qualifications—known as child development associate credentials—they must complete 24 training hours annually, she said, and it can be a struggle for educators to find the time and money to do it.

“Once you do, you kind of feel like, ‘It’s so hard to meet the basic requirements, so why go on?’” she said.

She found out about the Project Pathfinders scholarship while volunteering with Smart Beginnings and decided to try it out. She said the process of applying for the scholarship was simple and not intimidating, and everyone she dealt with was friendly. It gave her the motivation to continue.

“When I saw her name in the list of possibilities, I knew immediately that she’d be an excellent candidate,” Clark said. “I’ve been able to work with her on and off for more than two years.

“She’s so experienced and knowledgeable and a true professional in our field, and not having the education was holding her back. And she’s an example of someone who, without some a3ssistance, might not be able to achieve their goals.”

Spruill said she now feels motivated to pursue a bachelor’s degree next.

“It’s wonderful for teachers who feel stuck in a rut to know there is a way out there to better themselves,” she said. “I spent years just maintaining the basics and I’m ready for something else. This gives me the inspiration to keep pushing myself.”

After obtaining her degrees, she might continue teaching, look into owning her own facility again or work in preschool curriculum development.

“Who knows what the future will hold?” she said.

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele

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