Opening Pathways Conference

On Monday, June 13, 2016, several CAAS Head Start teachers and specialists participated in the “Opening Pathways: Strengthening Opportunities for Early Educators Who Are English Language Learners” leadership conference at Wheelock College. The half-day event, organized by the Community Advocates for Young Learners (CAYL) Institute and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition, brought together state agency leaders, higher education experts, early education advocates, and providers to address the challenges faced by immigrant and limited English proficient early educators in Massachusetts.

According to a recent CAYL Institute report, the number of young children and early educators who are English Language Learners (ELLs) is growing in Massachusetts. Currently, 30% of children under the age of six have at least one parent who speaks a language other than English, and 20% of all early educators in Massachusetts are ELLs. Achievement and development gaps for dual language learners manifest as early as Kindergarten. Studies show that ELL students’ outcomes improve when they are taught in their home language, making the contributions of multi-lingual educators an invaluable asset to early education in a linguistically diverse state such as Massachusetts.

However, many ELL educators lack the educational background necessary to support their students’ complex learning and developmental needs. Studies by national organizations cited in the CAYL Institute report suggest that a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education is the minimum qualification for becoming a Lead Teacher. The report also indicates that, in Massachusetts, only 21% of immigrant early educators over the age of 25 has a Bachelor’s degree or higher. These rising expectations coupled with the many structural barriers to higher education for those with limited English proficiency necessitate exploring ways to create and improve opportunities in higher education for ELL educators in the Commonwealth.

The Opening Pathways conference provided space for education leaders to come together and share their knowledge and ideas for strengthening these opportunities for ELL early educators in Massachusetts. Presentations were given on recent findings and best practices for improving career and educational pathways for this growing segment of the early education workforce. Panelists and conference attendees engaged in meaningful conversations about current trends and strategies, as well as ways to make higher education more attainable for English Language Learners. Jeff Gross of the MIRA Coalition described the conference as an “exciting and impactful event” that “will help advance the progress the state is making in supporting a diverse and high quality early education workforce.” Mr. Gross also expressed his gratitude for the insights provided by panelists Yamila Abarca and Gertha Jean - both of whom are CAAS Head Start teachers - noting that without their contributions, “it would have been a far less meaningful event.”

Ms. Abarca, who was born in El Salvador, has been with Head Start for 16 years. She became involved with the program after enrolling her daughter in preschool and taking ESOL classes at CAAS. Her role as an active parent evolved into an assistant teacher position, and she has since completed her Child Development Associate (CDA) and earned her Associate’s degree from Urban College. Her two children, now adults, have both completed post-secondary degrees.

Gertha Jean is originally from Haiti and came to the United States at the age of 22. She began teaching at a Head Start program in Connecticut, and when she came to Massachusetts, she taught KinderCare and later became a Lead Teacher for Cambridge Head Start. Gertha has been a CAAS educator and Center Director for eight years. She has her Early Education and Care (EEC) Director 1 certificate, and she earned her Bachelor’s degree from Cambridge College in 2011. Ms. Jean has four children and currently resides in Boston.

To learn more about CAAS Head Start, please visit our Head Start page or contact CAAS at or (617) 623-7370.