Helping Texas’ rural educators gain credentials, higher wages on-the-job


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A chorus of jittery 2-year-olds sing along as Allison Jackson raps the alphabet and sings the days of the week.

“Music is lived in my classroom,” Jackson said. “I can hear them singing their songs while they’re coloring and working cause that’s how they remember.”

Jackson is a full-time, toddler teacher in Waxahachie who is taking night classes as part of an apprenticeship program aimed at bolstering early childhood education in rural areas.

Jackson has always incorporated music into lessons for the toddlers, but now she’s more intentional. Every Monday at 6:30 p.m., she logs into Zoom for three hours of her own classes where she learns how to incorporate songs into lessons, address behavior issues and make play time educational.

Camp Fire First Texas, the Fort Worth-based nonprofit running the apprenticeship program, partners with North Texas child care centers and enrolls current educators at no cost to the apprentice with the goal of helping them reach higher qualifications and wages. The program recently expanded to specifically reach more areas away from big cities, such as Waxahachie and Glen Rose.

Their goal: help with teacher retention to mitigate child care deserts in rural areas.

Low wages and the lack of proper training are the biggest barriers that rural educators face, Camp Fire officials said. So the program addresses these with paid, on-the-job learning and one-on-one coaching.

Families in rural areas have a higher chance of living in a child care desert than those in urban areas, said Kim Kofron, director of early childhood for the nonprofit advocacy group Children at Risk.

Across the board, child care centers struggle to operate at full capacity because they can’t find enough educators to open classrooms, Kofron added. The issue is especially pronounced in rural areas that have a smaller pool of educators.

In Waxahachie, the 75167 ZIP code is an area where the number of children younger than 6 with working parents is three times greater than the capacity of licensed child care providers, according to Children at Risk.

Jackson works at the Connect: KIDS Learning Center, which is in the 75165 ZIP code. That area is not a desert as the supply meets at least 33% of demand, but there’s still not a seat for every child.

In 2020, Connect: KIDS had families on a waitlist and closed the 18-month room because it didn’t have enough teachers.

Now that the center has enough teachers to open all classrooms, families still have to wait because there’s no more room for some of the youngest kids, said Devona Daugherty, director of the center.

“We’re already struggling with getting teachers in the first place,” Daugherty said of rural centers. “This program helps make sure the teachers stay.”

Allison Jackson, 25, plays dinosaurs with Dylan Tuo, 2, at a child care center in Waxahachie.
Allison Jackson, 25, plays dinosaurs with Dylan Tuo, 2, at a child care center in Waxahachie. (Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Equipping teachers

Jackson had taught youngsters for seven years in various early childhood classrooms before starting the apprenticeship, but she hadn’t been able to earn credentials that could accelerate her career.

Now as she works toward a child development associate credential, the young educator hopes to eventually teach in a school district.

“I love working with kids,” said Jackson, who became interested in early childhood education in high school. “I love watching them learn and grow. I love being able to mold them.”

The program, which expanded into rural areas last year, invests about $5,000 in each apprentice. Camp Fire secured funding for the expansion through grants from the Texas Workforce Commission.

Those who complete Camp Fire’s program earn a certificate from the Infant Toddler or Prekindergarten Early Educator Institute, a child development associate credential and the early educator 1, a non-expiring certificate from the Department of Labor.

Students also receive up to nine hours of college credit at Tarrant County College. If they choose to pursue an associate degree in childhood development, Camp Fire pays for 90% of their tuition in partnership with the TEACH scholarship.

As apprentices work to earn credentials and college credits, they become equipped with the tools and knowledge they need to run the classroom. Daugherty said this helps with retention because it makes the job more enjoyable.

“When you’re equipped and you know what you’re doing, it makes a huge difference,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with free play. But if it has some sort of direction and purpose, then it’s not just chaos.”

Jackson now knows how to recognize autism, how to control fits and how to use songs to help children remember colors.

During center time, students play with dinosaurs and “make” french fries in the toy kitchen. “Toddlers freeze,” Jackson yells over the commotion of laughing, babbling youngsters.

They hold their hands in the air briefly before moving on to the next activity.

Before taking Camp Fire’s class, Jackson had her 2-year-olds stay at one station. She thought they wouldn’t understand how to move from one to the next on their own, but the class taught her how to help them learn.

Dearrine Morrow has mentored Jackson for about a year. She’s noticed Jackson’s confidence “go through the roof” and how she now excels at identifying what learning stage each child is at to individualize learning.

The one-on-one coaching and collaborative goal-setting helps educators grow faster.

“What’s unique about that is I get to know Allison intimately. I get to know her struggles, I get to know the things that she’s really great at, and so I’m able to individualize my mentoring for her,” Morrow said.

However, mentors are not always able to visit the centers in-person, so staying connected can be a challenge.

They use virtual tools, such as Zoom, to communicate with educators and be as present in the classroom as possible when in-person visits aren’t an option.

Some rural centers are scattered across the state, such as in the San Antonio area, and may not have stable internet access. Camp Fire equips such centers with iPads, hotspots and other tools to help them stay connected.

“I have done really well making sure that they still feel very connected, but that’s part of us having this growth mindset, making sure that we are staying innovative and we’re staying with the times,” Morrow said.

Allison Jackson, 25, leads her class of toddlers at the Connect: KIDS Learning Center in...
Allison Jackson, 25, leads her class of toddlers at the Connect: KIDS Learning Center in Waxahachie. Jackson has worked in early childhood education for years but is now in an apprenticeship program to help her gain credentials for higher wages.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Addressing the wage gap

A big part of turnover at Connect: KIDS is due to the wages they can offer, Daugherty said.

In rural communities, the median wage for an early childhood educator is $11.42 per hour, according to The Center for American Progress. The low wages — which are not significantly higher in metropolitan and urban areas — make it difficult for rural child care providers to find and retain qualified teachers.

Camp Fire helps close the pay gap with stipends.

As educators progress through the program, they receive two $500 stipends after completing certain credentials. The centers that partner with Camp Fire also agree to give educators who complete the program a raise.

If the educators complete the program then become a “master” teacher, which means they mentor colleagues also in the apprenticeship, they can earn additional stipends.

Three educators at Connect: KIDS are currently enrolled in Camp Fire’s program and another two are graduates who have seen wage increases of at least 3% since finishing the program.

While the program’s graduates have seen improvements, it can be difficult to get centers on-board in the first place, said Karea Scroggins, early education apprenticeship program manager.

“We had to spend a considerable amount of time with the owners of the centers, the directors of the centers, showing them how this is going to work,” Scroggins said.

The organization got the center directors’ support by explaining that as their educators gained credentials, the center could then meet criteria to become Texas Rising Star certified, which opens up access to additional resources and training from the state.

“It’s very easy to focus our research resources on the urban areas, and we sometimes forget that Texas has a really big rural population as well,” Kofron said. “Those teachers and children and families need high quality early childhood education too.”

Did you know that what you just read was a solutions journalism story? It didn’t just examine a problem; it scrutinized a response. By presenting evidence of who is making progress, we remove any excuse that a problem is intractable. This story was supported by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. If you value solutions-based reporting, consider supporting our public-service journalism by donating to our Education Lab.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.


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