Non-profit recieves grant to advance early childhood education in Burke


A local non-profit offering child and family services through Early Head Start has received a grant from the Dogwood Health Trust to boost early childhood education in Burke County.

The Enola Group received $617,697 to support its “Three Rs of Early Childhood Education” initiative. The three Rs focus on advancing education in Burke County through recruitment, retention and reinforcement of early childhood educators.

Working in partnership with Western Piedmont Community College, the project will recruit students into the profession by providing them paid on-the-job experiences and help retain current teachers through professional learning opportunities to improve work conditions. It’s a two-for-one proposition. According to Kasey Gardner, early childhood education coordinator at WPCC. 

“That’s one reason we were targeting our students … that are enrolled in our early childhood education courses through Western Piedmont,” she said. “It helps take them from the classroom to career, building that pipeline to help support the need in early childhood centers.”

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Gardner said recognizing early childhood educators as professionals and providing them with these kinds of professional development opportunities is a key to retaining them.

“We really try to steer away from the ‘daycare’ terminology,” Gardner said. “At any site, they’re all educators … they have training, they’re required to lesson plans and learn about childhood development and meet standards.”

Nancy Wood, community engagement director for The Enola Group,  said the agency is already able to provide many of these opportunities for educators in its centers through the Early Headstart program, so these grants will focus on private centers throughout the county. Currently, eight centers have expressed interest in the program. 

“Early Headstart is a supported program that already has some practiced-based coaching,” she said. “This is a funding opportunity to supplement what (private centers) are already providing and not increase costs.”

Through the grant, educators will participate in practice based coaching professional development opportunities and will receive stipends for the training.

“That is an evidence-based model of support for staff to improve teaching practices which, in turn increases quality,” said Wood.

In partnership with Burke County Public Schools, Western Piedmont will help staff the centers in their absence with high school juniors and seniors in its Early Childhood Education Career and College Promise Program (CCP). WPCC will also hire a retention specialist to focus on finding more ways to coach the CCP students and work to help early childhood educators stay in the profession.

Gardner said early childhood education is a key component of a community’s infrastructure and one that is often overlooked.

“A lot of families can’t work if they don’t have childcare,” she said. “Also, early intervention is shown to improve school readiness, so if we get our children started off on the right foot developmentally, hopefully they’re going to have a more successful school career.”

Wood said this has become even more apparent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we saw that during COVID,” she said. “People in other businesses couldn’t function because they didn’t have the staff to do so. Having good quality care does have this greater trickledown effect on the community.”

Wood said the impacts of the pandemic, along with worker shortages and increases in wages have also presented new challenges to early childhood centers’ ability to recruit and retain qualified professionals. She believes a focus on investing in early childhood educators will help centers keep qualified, dedicated teachers.

“A lot of times, people look at childcare as babysitting,” Wood said. “These are early childcare professionals, and so we want them to feel like they are professionals.”

Jason Koon is a staff writer and can be reached at [email protected] or 828-432-8907.

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