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WVU Extension faculty helping bridge child care gap in West Virginia

A group of child care providers gather for training exercises working with puzzles on a large wooden table.

Recent graduates of the Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialist program — a collaboration between the West Virginia Legislature, WVU Extension and other key partners — work with learning materials. (WVU Photo/Kerri Carte)

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To address a shortage of child care providers in the Mountain State, West Virginia University Extension agents are helping train staff to work at child care centers, offering children a safe place to learn and grow.

The Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialist program — a collaboration between the West Virginia Legislature, WVU Extension and other key partners — is a statewide training program that builds a competent, sustained workforce to provide quality care and education to West Virginia children.

“Children need to have a child care center to go to, which is why the Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialist program and the work our Extension agents are doing is critical to the state,” said Kerri Carte, a WVU Extension Family and Community Development agent in Kanawha County who has been an instructor for the apprenticeship program for 20 years.

“West Virginia is the only state that has this kind of apprenticeship program for child care.”

It’s needed. Some counties in West Virginia do not have any licensed child care providers, and more than 26,000 children in the state cannot access care despite need, according to Child Care Access in West Virginia.

Overall, the apprenticeship program is designed to blend classroom instruction and work experience. The curriculum, for which Carte served as the lead author, addresses child development, theory and related topics for children ages birth to 12.

The program consists of four semesters, each 15 weeks long and participants earn between 3,200 and 4,000 hours of work experience. Classes are offered in person and virtually throughout the state. Apprentices in the program must be employed in early childhood education and working directly with children.

When Carte started as an instructor for the program, there was no curriculum. Knowing this program needed that, the apprenticeship program formed a committee of instructors, including Extension agents, across the state to work on creating the educational materials.

The curriculum currently consists of lectures, activities, hands-on learning, homework, presentations, tests, group discussions and more. It also matches West Virginia educational standards and core competencies required by the state and is copyrighted by the Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialist program.

Carte and several other Extension agents are currently rewriting and updating the fourth semester curriculum.

“We are a leader in the nation when it comes to a child care apprenticeship program. Other states have reached out to the Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialist program wanting to implement it,” she said. “We integrated different domains of childhood development into the curriculum, like social, cognitive, emotional and motor development. In the program, we have apprentices of all ages, some just graduated high school and others have been out of school for a while and they are able to see that they can complete the program.”

Currently, six Extension agents serve as instructors for the program, allowing them to hone their teaching skills through hands-on learning.

“Working in child care development is a hard job and often low staffed, so this program helps child care providers to feel more educated and confident doing their jobs,” said Andrea Hoover, WVU Extension Family and Community Development agent in Greenbrier County. “Through this program, apprentices can understand why children act the way they do and they learn developmentally what is going on with a child.”

Hoover has been an instructor for the program since 2016 and has seen many “a-ha” moments from the apprentices. When the apprentices learn the theory behind why food textures can make picky eaters or when a child is crying, they could be hungry, sad or tired, it sparks those special moments that are great to see, explained Hoover.

“The apprentices do a reflection at the end of each semester, and it is amazing to see their progress and what they have learned. In addition to the reflection, they also must come up with their own childhood philosophy, showing how they want to work with children. This is a great way for them to apply the different theories and use their strengths,” Hoover said.

“When they go through this program, they are learning a lot about development — how a child care center works and how to help children reach the next developmental level — making them educators and providers and not just watching children.”

After completing the program, apprentices apply and receive a U.S. Department of Labor certification and become a journeyperson, along with having a portfolio, grades and transcripts to show for the work they have completed.

The Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialist program has an agreement with many universities and colleges in West Virginia where apprentices can earn 12 college credits for their program work if they chose to continue working on a degree in early childhood education.

“At the end of the first semester, I always get a handful of apprentices that say, ‘I didn’t think I could make it through.’ For some, this is the first thing they have completed outside of high school, which is why we have a graduation ceremony to celebrate them,” Carte said. “They see themselves as professionals and able to learn, which is very rewarding to see as an instructor.”

For recent graduate Jazmin Smith from Kanawha County the most meaningful part of the program was learning how to better serve the young children who will be in her care.

“Through the program I learned that while students may have different difficulties in life, we will be able to help no matter what if we apply ourselves and the knowledge we received,” Smith said.

Since the apprenticeship program was founded in 1989, approximately 3,776 individuals have completed it.

“Child care centers provide a safe, caring and nurturing environment for children,” Carte said. “Families at work know their child is getting good care and they do not have to worry if a family member or friend is available that day to watch their children, which is why this program is so critical to our state.”

The program taught Hannah Moff, also a recent graduate from Kanawha County, how important early childhood development is.

“I have learned how much we as early childhood educators impact all children and how important a child’s development is,” Moff said.

The Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialist program is a collaborative effort from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, the U.S. Department of Education, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Children and Families, the West Virginia Early Childhood Training Connections and Resources, and multiple vocational schools.

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