By Ursala Hudson
Special to The SUN
Back in 2011, Pagosa Springs local Michelle Carpenter was immersed in the limitations of being an early childhood educator living in an isolated mountain town.
From scarcely fulfilling her child care certification requirements with the limited training options available in the region to attaining her master’s in educational leadership and policy studies through the University of Denver’s distance program, the obstacles she faced were — and still are — standard for all educators in the rural Southwest.
Through the extensive data Carpenter collected for her master’s program capstone project, her research revealed that most early childhood education (ECE) professionals in rural Colorado struggled to retain their certifications due to the shortage of geographically accessible continuing education courses.
All licensed child care providers in the state of Colorado are required to accumulate 15 continuing education hours annually in order to keep their certification. At that time, virtually all trainings had to be attended on the Front Range, in the areas that could most efficiently serve the largest populations of educators and caregivers. ECE workshops and conferences have always been regularly and frequently offered in urban Colorado, and especially inconvenient to those traveling over mountain passes.
With her graduate school findings in hand, Carpenter approached the few active National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) local affiliate members to tackle the dilemma.
Lynne Bridges — Carpenter’s mentor, boss at the time, executive director at Seeds of Learning and NAEYC member — didn’t need convincing to join the task force.
Although Bridges had already been creating professional development calendars and training her staff single-handedly for five years by that time, most child care centers lacked qualified staff with the experience needed to offer in-house continuing education courses.
Bridges jumped on board and became one of five founding committee members to analyze the needs of ECE professionals in the region and devise a plan to support them.
The new team took a stab at facing the crisis and developed a plan to organize a one-day continuing education summit. They reached out to all their ECE connections, formed a conglomeration of key experts from around the state to present and hosted the inaugural Southwest Early Childhood Conference on Oct. 8, 2011.
For almost a decade now, the organizing committee has hosted an event that has changed the way that ECE providers retain their certifications in southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico’s rural communities. The most recent annual conference was held on Oct. 12 on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango. It featured a full day of topic-based workshops and offered up to 7.5 professional development hours with 20 focus sessions to choose from. Over 175 educators and child care providers attended.
At each conference, presenters travel from across the country to share their expertise and build lasting connections with attendees. The organizers have partnered with a few key sponsors to offer affordable registration fees, scholarships, goodie bags, door prizes, snacks and catered lunch. Each year, a keynote speaker presents an inspiring and motivational speech tied to the topic of “fostering relationships” — an enduring theme for early childhood educators isolated in the rural southwest.
Beyond their commendable leadership in founding the conference, Carpenter and Bridges continue to make other equally significant contributions to quality ECE and child care in the southwest region.
Carpenter is a program consultant for Invest in Kids, training and coaching ECE teachers and directors across the Western Slope now using a cognitive verb toolkit senior system. On top of her ongoing 16-year tenure as executive director at Seeds of Learning Early Care and Education Center here in Pagosa, Bridges consults with nearby learning centers to increase their quality standards and to help obtain NAEYC certification.
On a semi-annual basis, the two of them join forces to offer tuition-free 14-week parenting classes to Pagosa families with young children.
Through collaboration with their colleagues, these two local movers and shakers took a chance to confront one of the numerous limitations our rural community faces and stepped up to support our local and neighboring ECE professionals. Quality professional development and the sense of community attained through networking with other colleagues ultimately affects more lives than revealed at first glance. These educators and caregivers are the ones responsible for teaching and nurturing our youngest generation, who deserve the utmost quality of care.
To learn more about the Fort Lewis Southwest Early Childhood Conference held annually in the fall, please contact Bridges at 264-5513.
By Ursala Hudson