Community Action Celebration: A milestone moment for early childhood education in Battle Creek


The first eight years of a child’s life can make all the difference in their future. 

“The bottom line is: serving kids and making sure they have quality education early in life lays an essential foundation for their life achievements,” shares Lisa Farrell, career pathway navigator at Community Action, a Battle Creek, Mich. organization dedicated to promoting economic and social opportunities in the state. But quality education doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires trained educators who understand the unique needs and behaviors of young children. 

The need to increase the amount of these trained educators could not be more urgent: a national study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found 54% of children in the U.S. do not receive early childhood education.

And as Michigan plans to begin rolling out free Pre-K for 4-year-olds across the state starting in the fall of 2024, the need for trained educators will rise dramatically. The state’s PreK for All initiative aims to make Michigan the top-enrolling state in the country, with 75% of 4-year-olds enrolled in free preschool programs by 2027. That means serving a total of 88,500 of the state’s 118,000 4-year-olds.

Currently, only 41% or about 49,000 4-year-olds are in publicly funded early learning programs, meaning the state needs to gear up quickly to serve an additional 40,000 children, which will require an additional 1,700 lead teachers, 3,400 associate teachers and 1,700 additional classrooms.

The state has developed a roadmap to achieve these goals, and a program run by Community Action in Battle Creek that is building the early childhood workforce in the city could serve as a model for helping communities across the state train teachers quickly.

Early childhood educator, Hazel Lemon, earned her CDA through the Career Pathway program. Photo credit Community Action.

On Feb. 29, Community Action celebrated 100 individuals who earned their Child Development Associate (CDA) credential as part of its Career Pathway program. Committed to the success of each participant, the WKKF-supported program provides financial assistance, covering all fees associated with the CDA, offering a stipend to help with rent and food expenses, and supplying equipment on loan. The program also offers one-on-one coaching to help participants with different learning styles and those who need support with their English language skills.

Early childhood educator, Stephanie O’Connor, earned her CDA through the Career Pathway program, and with the program’s help, is now pursuing her associate degree in early education. Photo credit Community Action

In addition to supporting participants, the program goes even further and invests in the future of the community by providing housing incentives to graduates who work in Battle Creek and helping graduates find employment in the city. 

Central to the program’s philosophy is removing barriers for people in Battle Creek interested in pursuing a career in early childhood education, thus creating a local talent pipeline that benefits children, families, the local economy and participants, who gain the skills necessary for a new career

Farrell attests to how the program meets participants where they are and ensures coursework is offered on a flexible schedule. 

“We see a lot of young and single moms interested in becoming early childhood educators in Battle Creek who don’t have the time to go to a class. But there are so many ways we can go about learning in ways that work for them,” Farrell shares, adding that the Career Pathway program builds more economic mobility for participants, who acquire the skills and training necessary for better-paying jobs through acquiring their CDA. 

“We’ve really boosted the employment rate in early childhood education in Battle Creek,” Farrell notes, “we’re having more people going into the field, realizing people can get credentials as they go.” 

WKKF Program Officer Alana White credits Community Action’s “amazing results in our local early childhood education system” to the organization’s creative approach to community engagement and building community partnerships to ensure that training opportunities are known and accessed. 

The success of Community Action’s work is being felt across the city, as additional trained staff in centers and preschools throughout the city means that parents, especially those who work outside 9-to-5 hours, have the freedom to work and support their families knowing their children are safe, secure and thriving.

Owner and director of Sugar and Spice Child Care Center of Battle Creek, Maude Bristol-Perry, with her class of 2 to 4-year-olds. Bristol-Perry earned her CDA through the Career Pathway program and is now completing an associate degree. Photo credit Community Action

Local employer Duncan Aviation understands the importance of building the local early childhood education workforce. 

“Having affordable and accessible early childhood education programs in Battle Creek means that we can attract and retain talented team members, especially female employees who are often disproportionately affected by childcare responsibilities,” says Andy Richards, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Duncan Aviation. “Ensuring a strong early childhood education workforce has an impact well beyond our company. It creates long-term economic benefits for individuals and communities by creating jobs, supporting workforce participation, stimulating economic activity and promoting business stability.” 

For the Battle Creek community to fully benefit from the promise of early childhood education, additional investment in our early childhood education system — from both the private and public sectors — is necessary. White notes, “we all have a role to play to innovate and provide opportunities to appropriately compensate these educators.” 

“We know how critical early childhood education is to the development of our children in the short- and long-run, and as we continue to develop the pipeline of early childcare professionals, we should all be working to make sure that trained professionals have upward economic mobility in the field,” White concludes. 

As Michigan works toward increasing access to early childhood education, Battle Creek is leading the way. Community Action’s Career Pathway program serves as a pointed example of what a collaborative, community-based approach between philanthropy and community partners in academia, local services and businesses can achieve to build a stronger future.


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