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CSUEB master's degree option emphasizes the importance of early childhood education

  • June 8, 2011

During commencement ceremonies Sunday (June 12) afternoon, Cal State East Bay's College of Education and Allied Studies will recognize recipients of one of the university’s newest degree offerings, the Master of Science in Education with an option in early childhood education.

The 25 students receiving their degrees are all professional early care providers serving Alameda County communities. The cohort was sponsored by First 5 Alameda County, part of a statewide public outreach program that works with children, parents and caregivers to improve child health and social development from birth to age 5.

The Early Childhood Education option is a six-quarter, 45-unit program with weekend and online courses designed for working preschool teachers and directors. Each student in the cohort received a full scholarship for the duration of the program, including tuition and a quarterly stipend for books and materials, with funding provided by First 5 Alameda County and administered by the East Bay Community Foundation.

According to First 5 program service administrator Erin Freschi, quality early education is a critical component of the program’s mission to better prepare children for school. Although formal schooling at the district level doesn’t begin until the kindergarten level, “everything a child experiences from birth to age 5 is contributing to school readiness,” Freschi said.

Working with early childhood care providers is key, she explained, because many children under 5 spend a large portion of time with professionals outside of the home, either in day cares or preschool programs. “We want the providers to be able to optimize that time so children are prepared to succeed,” she said.

Helping preschool care providers further their education will not only benefit children but also help develop leaders in early childhood education who can influence curricula and policy, Freschi added.

Associate Professor Valerie Helgren-Lempesis (teacher education) led the efforts to create and design the curriculum, which emphasizes developmentally and culturally appropriate practices for preschool environments, professional leadership and CSUEB’s hallmark “hands-on” approach, with real-world research and clinical supervision.

Andrea Burnett, director of a Head Start preschool in the East Oakland’s Brookfield neighborhood that serves 68 families, said she “ran to First 5 and signed right up” when she heard about the new master’s degree option. A 19-year veteran of preschool education, Burnett earned a bachelor’s degree in Human Development at CSUEB, but noted that when she started her career, the only academic programs focused on early childhood development were associate’s degrees.

The combination of face-to-face, online and hybrid classes with early evening and weekend scheduling provide maximum flexibility and convenience for working professionals, according to Helgren-Lempesis.

“These are people from the field,” she said. “They’re on the floor, every day, with the kids, from early morning to after 6 pm in some cases.”

“It was a way to fulfill a lifetime dream,” said Francesca Conterno, who has worked as a preschool teacher in the Hayward Unified School District for 23 years. She’s already been able to implement new strategies into her classroom environment and in her work with parent outreach.

Although they both love being in the classroom, Burnett and Conterno say they would also like to teach other early childhood educators to help raise the bar for school readiness and bridge the achievement gap for children in low-income families.

“I have such a good foundation of what goes on in the early years, I’m confident speaking out about it and being a mentor,” Conterno said.

First 5 Alameda County is continuing to support early childhood professionals interested in higher education, offering scholarships for the master’s degree program as well as to students pursing a bachelor’s degree in human development, with an option in Early Childhood Development. 

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