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Birth-Kindergarten Program receives momentous grant

By Brooklyn Brown
bk program

From left to right, Sarah Pendonti, assistant professor; Myra Watson, assistant professor; Cathy Grist, professor; Kim Winter, dean; and Derek Becker, associate professor.

Western Carolina University’s Birth-Kindergarten Program was recently awarded an $868,885 grant by the Dogwood Health Trust for Leadership, Equity and Access Fellowship in Early Childhood Education.

The program was selected as one of 10 organizations in the region dedicated to increasing access and equity in the early childhood workforce for underserved communities. The grant is intended to create an increase in resources, opportunities and educated early childhood workers from diverse backgrounds to better serve the communities of the region and state.

Kim Winter, dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, explained the importance of the grant to WCU and the region. “This project will increase access to early childhood education as well as diversify and increase the early childhood workforce – both vital in Western North Carolina,” Winter said. “WCU is invested in the values identified by Dogwood Health Trust. Education is the key to opportunities for all and we are committed to access and equitable delivery of programs.”

Plans for the grant are in the works under the leadership of co-principal investigators from the Birth-Kindergarten Program: Cathy Grist, Derek Becker, Myra Watson and Sarah Pedonti.

The program is a fully online undergraduate degree, with concentrations in either early childhood or professional education as well as North Carolina licensure. The flexibility of the online program allows for a student population of roughly 425 students from all over North Carolina. The program is designed for students who have earned their associate of arts or associate of science degree and are interested in pursuing state licensure to teach early childhood education.

Grist, a professor in the department of human services, said the goals for the LEAF in ECE grant fit seamlessly with the Birth-Kindergarten Program. “The grant itself has a focus of leadership, equity and access. We have those components fused through our program currently, but we are looking forward and excited about strengthening those components,” Grist said. “The grant is a natural extension of what we’re trying to do every day. Now we just have some funding. We are really excited about the possibilities.”

The grant will allow the Birth-Kindergarten Program to produce a strong early childhood workforce ready to serve the community. “Our children deserve to have highly-skilled professionals working with them,” Grist said. “My hope is that it will make a difference in young children’s lives.”

The grant will provide fully-funded tuition for the Birth-Kindergarten Program to a cohort of 30 students, as well as a stipend to support other expenses such as materials, food or rent. The program is currently recruiting and will begin in the fall of 2023.

The purpose of the cohort is to create an educated and available workforce in early childhood education. “In Western North Carolina, there is a real lack of options for high quality, accessible childcare, especially in some of the more rural counties,” said Pedonti, an assistant professor in the department of human services.

The grant focuses on the cultural and socioeconomic communities in WNC facing a shortage of proper childcare and childcare workers. “We want to make sure that the teachers are representative of our population in the western part of the state,” said Watson, an assistant professor in human services. “And that we are providing opportunities for people who may have experienced systemic barriers to completing college or licensure.”

The program is looking for new and current students who meet the criteria of the LEAF in ECE mission. More information regarding the application process will be forthcoming.

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