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Students of COCC's Early Childhood Education program learn to connect with children, support early literacy

COURTESY PHOTO: TIMOTHY PARK - COCC's Early Childhood Education program cultivates skills for working with kids.It's a project day for a "Children's Literature & Curriculum" class at Central Oregon Community College, and the students, circled-up into two groups, are taking turns giving five-minute presentations on an author of their choice. With a small stack of illustrated books piled up on each desk, it's as if an epic "story time" is unfolding on a college campus. And, well, it is.

"This one was my favorite," shared a student, holding up a copy of "Fox the Tiger" by author and illustrator Corey R. Tabor. "It's a super-cute book about being OK with who you are." She reads the book aloud to the class, turning the pages for all to see. (Spoiler alert: With painted-on stripes, the fox momentarily transforms into a tiger, but soon realizes he's happiest as himself.)

The students talk about story themes. They share creative ideas for connecting children with the text. Their discussion centers on encouraging and supporting early literacy — igniting that vital spark between budding minds and books, with an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. In the nearby Barber Library, the Children's Literature and Equity Resource Center, or CLERC, offers a curated collection of more than 7,000 titles to support that focus.

And while learning notable names in children's lit, the students also get a chance to step into the role of an educator, to lead and engage a class. On the wall, a handmade poster that honors Friedrich Froebel, the "Father of Kindergarten," regards the scene with quiet approval.

Also observing the class is COCC associate professor Angie Cole. She walks between both groups, jotting down notes and watching the future educators in action. "Our classes are incredibly interactive," Cole emphasized after the presentations. To that end, she shares this advice with her students at the start of the term: "If you're more of a listener, become a speaker, and if you're more of a speaker, become a listener."

The Early Childhood Education program at COCC cultivates these skills — and many more — in prepping students for careers with kids. As part of the college's Education department (which also offers pathways into elementary and secondary education), the Early Childhood Education program offers three degrees and three certificates.

It's a tightknit program, with classes capped at 15 students, akin to a cohort model but without the structured pacing of a cohort. The team-like atmosphere is an extension of how the faculty themselves collaborate — they intentionally share an office and sometimes hang a clothesline clipped with sticky notes as a way to keep agenda items visible and unifying.

Classes are offered at the Bend, Redmond and Madras campuses; some feature online, remote and hybrid formats. A portion of the curriculum is taught completely in Spanish.

"Our students are coming from really diverse experiences and backgrounds," said program director and professor Amy Howell, Ph.D., adding that the age range of her students in a recent year spanned from 16 to 75. "Not all of our students have chosen education because they themselves loved school. Sometimes it's just the opposite — they're trying to make a difference for others."

Every student that takes an Early Childhood Education class engages in a field placement. This supervised experience, requiring about three hours per week, gives students — through volunteer work or part-time employment — direct experience with children. Current field placements include those with the High Desert Education Service District, Boys & Girls Club of Bend, NeighborImpact and privately owned centers. In the near future, COCC students' field placement will also include opportunities at OSU-Cascades' Little Beavs and Little Kits early learning programs, thanks in part to local, state and federal child care investments across Central Oregon.

Generally, more than half of the program's students are pursuing teaching licensure. Locally, OSU-Cascades offers both a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and a bachelor's in elementary education (with licensure). George Fox University, which has a Redmond presence, also offers a bachelor's in elementary education and an MAT program.

Some students will go on to work outside the classroom, as advocates and policymakers. Some will take a faster track into employment, such as the 21-credit Developmentally Appropriate Learning Environments (DALE) certificate, which preps students to work in preschools and other non-licensure settings.

Though their academic goals may vary, all are part of a program that highlights a fundamental truth from day one. "We want to really emphasize, fundamentally, that the first 2,000 days of life are critical for lifelong development — and that's really birth through age five," explained Howell. "We know now, more than ever, that investing in early learning is one of the greatest investments that we can make as a society in terms of long-term benefits."

For more details on COCC's Early Childhood Education program, visit

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