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Early education training program for high schoolers in Hilo hopes to bolster local workforce

Hilo Early Learning Career Pathways early education
Hilo Early Learning Career Pathways

A new pilot program underway in Hilo aims to bolster the local workforce of early childhood educators by providing real-world training and college courses to students still in high school.

The Early Learning Career Pathways Project comes at a time when a large number of preschool teachers are retiring or exiting the workforce, leaving no one to refill these crucial positions.

jana smith early childhood education
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
Jana Smith

Early childhood education veteran Jana Smith listens in on preschoolers at the Hawai'i Community College Children's Center, where college students gain practical experience.

Smith, who runs the early education program at the college, says the teacher shortage is real.

"I have directors calling me every day, almost in tears, saying, 'We don't have enough people.' And especially when COVID was first in lockdown, it wasn't such a problem," she said.

"But now that we're opening up again, people are going back to work and people have decided, well, I want to do something else or I'm tired of early childhood or I need to support my family and I have to go get a job that pays a whole lot more because early childhood does not pay well," Smith said.

Smith teamed up with other early education teachers including former teacher Tonya Baybayan to launch the Early Learning Career Pathways Project. It offers opportunities for high school students to earn college credit and experience to make them workforce ready upon graduation.

Tonya Baybayan early education
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
Tonya Baybayan

Baybayan, who currently works at Keaʻau Middle School, says students are curious about the field.

"Because they're not sure what it is, you know, because a lot is not heard about early childhood. So my plug is to get them aware of what early childhood is. And this first course that they take kind of introduces them to a lot of the beginnings of early childhood and sparks their interest," Baybayan said.

Baybayan, the program director for the pilot project, says the first cohort is already underway and they are recruiting high school students for the second cohort. The program is free and students will earn nine college credits and required first aid/CPR certifications.

Smith says this crisis in early childhood education needs to be addressed and this pipeline may be part of the solution.

"If we want to make real change in the world, it has to start from the beginning because this is when they're learning to walk, talk, think, do everything. They get their values not only from their parents but also from the people they spend 8 to 10 hours a day with," Smith told HPR.

For more information visit www.EarlyLearningCareerPathways.com. It is open to Hilo High, Waiakea High, and Ke Kula ʻo Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Lab Public Charter School students who will be juniors in the fall semester.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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