Ritu Chopra, assistant professor of research in the School of Education, works with a early childhood education teacher from Aurora Community College
Ritu Chopra, assistant professor of research in the SEHD, works with an ECE faculty member from Aurora Community College.

Prioritizing early childhood education

January 9, 2020

You don’t have to be a parent or pedagogy scholar to know that early childhood education (ECE) has a huge impact on young children’s growth and development. Despite that, much of the current ECE workforce is not trained to fully serve all young children. 

Ritu Chopra, PhD, executive director of The Paraprofessional Research and Resource (PAR2A) Center, and her colleagues in the School of Education & Human Development are working to solve this problem through a project called Ensuring Preparation of InClusive Early Childhood Educators (EPIC-ECE).

With funding from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, EPIC-ECE seeks to address the need for a well-prepared ECE workforce to give children ages 0-8, including those with disabilities, and their families a meaningful ECE experience. The 5-year project builds on the previous work of The PAR2A Center and connects CU Denver education scholars with ECE faculty at four area community colleges: Arapahoe Community College (ACC), Community College of Aurora (CCA), Pikes Peak community College (PPCC) and Red Rocks Community College (RRCC). 

“Together, we are enhancing the capacity of the ECE workforce to be effective for students with disabilities and making sure that families and students are being served well and meaningfully included in education settings,” Chopra said.

Preparing ECE personnel to serve young children with disabilities

“Research tells us that the current ECE workforce is not prepared to teach and support diverse children and families, including young children with disabilities,” said Chopra, the principal investigator (PI) for EPIC-ECE.

According to a national study, only 17 percent of the ECE workforce feels competent in fully supporting students with disabilities.

There’s more than one way to become an ECE teacher, but the most common preparation pathway for the entry-level ECE workforce in the U.S. is through community colleges. So, understanding the strengths and needs of these institutions is key to adequately preparing an ECE workforce that is competent in working with young children with disabilities and their families. 

Working across institutions 

Through EPIC-ECE, CU Denver ECE faculty work collaboratively with Denver-area community college ECE faculty, analyzing syllabi, discussing best practices and deciding together on curriculum adjustments to address the needs of young children with disabilities. 

Goals of EPIC-ECE, which ends in 2023, are:

  • Identify gaps and build upon strengths of the existing ECE curricula and make recommendations for enhancements. 
  • Update online ECE resources – such as lessons, articles and videos – related to inclusion and students with disabilities. 
  • Provide ECE faculty with coaching and professional development, including an annual summer institute.
  • Support high-quality field placements in inclusive settings for future ECE professionals.
  • Collaborate with state-level ECE initiatives to improve recruitment, preparation and retention of ECE personnel.

When universities and community colleges work together

EPIC-ECE is part of a larger network of faculty from six higher education institutions working with their state’s community colleges. They are also leveraging the work of state-level initiatives, including the Early Childhood 2020 Workforce Plan, and collaborating with the Early Childhood Higher Education Partnership (ECHEP). 

“Collaborating with statewide agencies and the leaders of ECHEP will result in a broader impact and sustainability of the project activities beyond the duration of the grant,” said Elizabeth Steed, PhD, associate professor of education and co-PI for EPIC-ECE.

The participating community college ECE faculty members and department chairs – Kristin Habicht and Kathleen Sutherland from ACC, Ashley Simpson from CCA, Michele Bender from PPCC, and Janiece Kneppe from PPCC – agree that EPIC-ECE will enhance curricula, better prepare students and positively impact children.

“By working with EPIC-ECE, I envision students coming in wanting to be teachers or childcare providers, but graduating as change agents in ECE,” Simpson said.

Clinical Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Special Education Michael Barla, EdD, and Training & Technical Assistance Specialist Ben Riepe, both from CU Denver, are working on the project, as well as Rashida Banerjee, PhD, a consultant from the University of Denver.

“To work with such a knowledgeable team, who truly are experts in the field, is an amazing opportunity!” Habicht said.