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DECATUR β€” The employment outlook for early childhood educators is good.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is projected to grow 10 percent through 2026, faster than the average for all occupations, and the reason for that growth, the report said, is a continued focus on the importance of early childhood education.

β€œI got my associate's degree and started working for Head Start,” said Rachel Woods of Paxton, who drives to Millikin University weekly to study for her bachelor's degree in the Flexible Learning Program, formerly PACE. β€œ(The reason for choosing early childhood) is my love for the kids and wanting to help them grow and learn.”

She chose Flexible Learning because she wanted to keep working while pursuing her degree, but she didn't want online-only classes. Students take one class at a time, usually for about five weeks of accelerated study. Designed for returning adult students who are also working, classes usually meet in the evenings once a week.

β€œIt's worth it,” she said. β€œI'd do it all over again.”

Early childhood education is a growing field. Illinois requires a bachelor's degree with student-teaching experience and a licensing exam, and teachers are certified to teach children from birth through age 8, which includes kindergarten through second grade in the classroom. With the Preschool for All grant, said class instructor Claudia Quigg, the demand for qualified early childhood teachers is enormous.

When Angela Ball's oldest child reached school age, she began working as a classroom aide, and the teachers at Clinton School encouraged her to pursue a degree, she said, and suggested Millikin's program.

β€œI”ve got four kids and a husband and full-time work, so it keeps me busy, but it's the only thing that works for a schedule when you also have to work,” Ball said. β€œIt turns out really well. With five-week to seven-week classes, then you're done and you move on. So you're focusing on one thing intensely for that time.”

Courtney Barter always wanted to be a teacher, but she also wanted to be home with her 8-month-old child during the day. The once-weekly evening class allows her to do both.

β€œYou're in an out of one class (at a time), and if I take an extra class and it's traditional, I'm like, 'Man, when is this thing going to end?'” she joked, as her classmates laughed. β€œI'm used the the five weeks, and I like only coming once a week. It makes it easier for my life.”

Like others in the class, Amber Goebel has children of her own and is also working, and the program worked for her schedule. She attended Millikin in the past, and her husband works for the university.

β€œAfter I had my own children, I realized I really had a passion for the little kids,” Goebel said. β€œI always knew I wanted to teach, but I thought I would be teaching older kids, and then I started working in a pre-K school and I fell in love with the little ones. There's so much going on with them developmentally.”

Dani Craft, executive director of the Education Coalition of Macon County, said private preschools are not required to hire teachers with a bachelor's degree, as long as they have a qualified lead teacher in each classroom, but publicly funded programs like Pershing Early Learning Center or Anna Waters Head Start are required to hire teachers with bachelor's degrees.

With greater education comes higher salaries, and Craft said many of the preschools would have to close if they were only able to hire and pay those with bachelor's degrees.

Early childhood teachers take the same basic core subjects, Quigg said, but can specialize in developmental therapy or pursue teacher certification.

β€œIf they're going to be developmental therapists, instead of student teaching, they work under a developmental therapist for 240 hours,” Quigg said. β€œIt's possible to do both if they take an extra semester.”

Studies have shown that 90 percent of a child's brain development occurs before the age of 5, according to First Things First. A newborn has all the brain cells they'll have for life, but it's the connections between those cells that determine how well the brain works, and those connections are made as the child learns through environment and experience.

The richer those are, the better for the child, and when children don't get enough of the right kind of stimulation, it can affect their success in school and in life. Differences in vocabulary, for example, are apparent as early as 18 months of age, and those children are at risk of starting kindergarten behind their peers.

A recently released study by New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture Education and Human Development showed the positive effects of early childhood programs are still evident in adolescence.

Alexandria Mason of Decatur was encouraged to explore a career in early childhood education by her aunt, and it has proved to be a good fit.

β€œWhen you see them reach those milestones, it's so much fun to rejoice with them,” she said.

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

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