Charlene Mara

WORCESTER – It’s hokey pokey time at the Children’s School in  Quinsigamond Community College’s Child Study Center. Twenty preschoolers stand in a circle and put their right hands in and shake them all about. The adults in the room include three classroom teachers and four college students of early education. The students’ professor is observing through a window in the corridor when Charlene Mara, faculty coordinator of Quinsigamond’s early childhood program, and I stop by to watch.

The Quinsigamond program is a lab school, where students apply what they learn in their college classroom upstairs to the early education classroom downstairs. For one semester, they observe veteran early educators, who serve as mentors and model the best practices that the college students studied. In the second semester, students practice what they learned. At day’s end, the early educators join the students and faculty to discuss how they applied theories of child development and classroom management to their practice. The program, Mara tells me, is one of the few associate degree lab school programs, intertwining the academic with experience-based practice. It is also accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

On the day that I visit, the topic is group time. How did the early educators successfully transition children to circle time? How did they use strategic positioning? How did they introduce a new topic? What were children learning in circle time? How did the early educators guide the children from sitting to standing for hokey pokey? How does the hokey pokey meet the pre-kindergarten curriculum standards that Massachusetts aligned with the Common Core State Standards?

“This is the glue,” Mara says. “When we’re working on something with the students upstairs in the college classroom, that’s what the focus is down here in the Children’s School. The students don’t just have the theoretical knowledge. They have practical experience as well. They know how to work with children. They know how to plan appropriate, meaningful curriculum.”

Mara is herself a graduate of Quinsigamond’s early childhood program and has been associated with the community college for more than 30 years. She has worked as a teacher in the lab school, directed the center and taught a variety of courses in the department. Mara represents community colleges on the advisory board of the Department of Early Education and Care. She has also worked with Head Start, school-age programs and community partnership programs. She co-chaired the Core Competency Committee of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. Mara holds a B.A. in urban studies and an M.Ed. in early childhood education from Worcester State College.

In addition to the program for full-time students that I observe, Quinsigamond has a parallel program for working early educators returning to school. This is where Kim Gregoire, about whom I wrote last month, studied, with the help of the state’s early childhood educators scholarship.

Working early educators come to the lab school three afternoons a semester, roughly once a month, and Quinsigamond faculty members visit them at their workplaces. Feedback sessions and classroom time are the other components of the program. As indicated in the item about Gregoire, early educators’ participation depends on buy-in from their employers. Quinsigamond staff meet with program directors to ensure that early educators get the coverage they need to participate in the program and are not docked pay. “Most of the programs support their employees because they see the value of the education and training their early educators receive.”

Now Mara is trying to develop a program for family child care providers. “What’s going to be trickier is the coming to Quinsigamond for the lab school component,” she says.

We visit empty classrooms while children are on the playground, and Mara shows me the sheets on which teachers record observations of children’s development in a variety of domains. “As the children are playing, we observe what they know and can do,” Mara says. Through this kind of ongoing process, the center uses observation to inform instruction. “What do I have to plan to meet the children’s needs?”

Teaching students how to engage parents as partners in their children’s learning is another important component of the program, Mara says. “We stress to the students that you’re also educating parents,” she says. “That’s the other half of the responsibility. Helping parents help their children develop appropriately.”

The lab school model is effective and, Mara acknowledges, expensive. “We have good [teacher-child] ratios,” Mara says. “We pay our teachers a liveable wage, which reduces turnover.”

The low wages that Quinsigamond and other graduates typically earn, however, remain a major stumbling block for the early childhood field. Graduates who go on to earn their bachelor’s degrees often move to the public schools where, Mara says, they can earn substantially more. Earning the B.A., she adds, “takes years and years, so they’re in the field for a long time.” However, it remains difficult to retain well-educated staff in community-based settings.

“This is a profession. We encounter, ‘Oh, you’re playing with children. How hard can it be?’ This is a hard program. There is a lot of reading and reflective writing. You really have to be performing at a college level to be in this program,” Mara says.

“When our students graduate, anyone who wants a job has a job. A decent job as a lead teacher. Unfortunately, they’re not making a living wage,” she adds. “Unless we change that, we’re not going to get the results the community wants. It’s not just for the state to solve. It’s a work force issue. Businesses have to be involved as well. When you look at the brain research, this is where you should be investing the most.”