USF Sarasota-Manatee professor awarded $1.2 million to improve early childhood education

Dr. Rebecca Burns is finally able to link her passion with her research, thanks to a $771,000 grant from the Helios Education Foundation and in-kind contributions from the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), totaling $1.2 million of support.

As an assistant professor of ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and  former project coordinator for RCMA, Burns’ interests lie in helping the children of migrant workers get proper childcare while their parents work, many times as farmhands and fruit pickers.  RCMA operates 80 childcare centers in farm communities, targeting the rural poor.  More than 80 percent of RCMA teachers are from Hispanic immigrant-farmworker families.

“There is often a deep cultural gap between migrant families and traditional childcare centers, and mothers aren’t willing to send their children to those programs” Burns said.  “RCMA hires early childhood education teachers from within the migrant community and provides them with the necessary training to provide an educational learning environment for children while their parents work.”

The current project, entitled “A USF/RCMA Collaboration: Scaffolding the First Generation Scholar in Early Childhood Professional Development, Language Acquisition, and Literacy,” is a collaboration between USF Sarasota-Manatee and USF Polytechnic and is the first time the two universities, both within the USF System, have collaborated on a project of this magnitude.

Dr. Smita Mathur, assistant professor in the USF Polytechnic Division of Education and principal investigator of the project, developed a teacher training program called Scaffold the Scholar that will be the model for the program.  Burns, the co-principal investigator on the project, will also serve as the Literacy Coach Coordinator and Project Evaluator.

“RCMA teachers understand migrant children, the culture and lifestyle, but they often need help with English language acquisition and literacy,” said Mathur, who also serves on the board of RCMA.  “Scaffold the Scholar provides those missing ingredients.”

The Helios Education Foundation has a coverage area from Dade City to Palmetto and as far east as Winter Haven.  With the grant, 109 early childhood education teachers from RCMA centers in the Helios funding area – Manatee, Hillsborough, Polk, and Pasco counties – will receive 90% of their tuition paid for the three year project.  The grant will enable newly hired teachers to take the required Florida Child Care Professional Credential coursework and established teachers to take college credit-bearing courses leading to the BS in Early Childhood Education.

“These are exciting times for everyone in this partnership,” Burns said.  “RCMA’s mission is to open doors to opportunity, and this project provides a golden door.  Dr. Mathur and I look forward to demonstrating a successful model for professional development for this under-served group of educators, who are rural, low income, first generation English speakers, and often first generation high school graduates.  The greatest contribution of our work will be the bilingual, bicultural scholars themselves, scholars who are uniquely well-qualified to teach the children in their communities and prepare them for the challenges of the future.”

“USF has stepped outside the box in this grant,” said Barbara Mainster, RCMA’s executive director.  “They’ve recognized that education has to adapt to meet demographic changes and respect students’ contributions.  And the Helios Foundation has recognized that such innovations need to be funded.  We’re excited and pleased.”

Starting April 1, the first cohort of 20 RCMA teachers will begin the 40-week Scaffold the Scholar program, which will run parallel to credit-bearing education courses at USF Polytechnic.  Objectives include promoting language and literacy, ensuring college success, and enhancing self-esteem and personal empowerment.

While Scaffold the Scholar will benefit teachers, Mathur says it also has direct and positive impact on preschool aged children, their families, and all of society.

“The way I see it, we as a society have two options: we can empower children and families to learn and contribute to society, or we can ignore them and develop a permanent underclass for which we will all pay for life,” she said.  “Forget the politics and face the facts: these migrant kids are born here and are a part of our population.  When we empower kids, we also empower parents and create productive and contributing members of society.”