Rhode Island programs have transformed learning to a new degree

Posted 1/17/24

No matter what career one is in or hopes to pursue in the future, more in the state is being offered than ever before to help get one there. High school career and tech programs, new college …

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Rhode Island programs have transformed learning to a new degree


No matter what career one is in or hopes to pursue in the future, more in the state is being offered than ever before to help get one there. High school career and tech programs, new college apprenticeship programs, and professional level certification programs growing and being newly implemented are allowing Rhode Islanders of all ages and skill levels to find new ways to pursue certification and non-traditional education opportunities for a more robust workforce.

Starting his year, students at state colleges will have a new way of receiving credits through apprenticeship training and hands-on experience.

The Rhode Island Senate Bill 178, which was passed on June 21st, 2023 and went into effect January 1st, 2024 requires state universities to implement programs which will allow students seeking non-traditional apprenticeship programs to receive college credits towards their bachelor’s degree.

“Especially now since we need so many more tradesmen and specialties besides the normal college graduate, it is a way of getting more into our workforce,” said Senator Hanna Gallo, one of eight senators who introduced this legislation.

According to Gallo, the Department of Labor and Training as well as the Department of Higher Education are responsible for working with the schools to create programs and internship positions for specific career paths. The Board of Education will review the policies implemented for this legislation by April 1, 2024.

The bill requires the State board of education to form a group composed of representatives from the schools, as well as from the Department of Labor and Training, the officer of the postsecondary commissioner, the state and apprenticeship council, and the construction trades to advise the board of education regarding the implementation of these programs. The bill further lays out the specifics of what must be implemented, including the number of credits students earn through their apprenticeships, and the process through which students may request credits for their apprenticeships. The bill also lays out a timeline for these programs’ creation, implementation and expansion.

“A lot of people during covid left the job market, and we’ve got shortages everywhere. This hopefully will enhance and incentivize people to get their degrees and be able to get jobs,” said Gallo.

This bill is the most recent example in Senator Gallo’s long career as a proponent of public education. Gallo is Vice Chair of the Senate Education Committee and has supported funding for public education throughout her tenure in the general assembly. In 2010, Gallo sponsored the first educational formula bill for Rhode Island in fifteen years. Additionally, she recently retired from a career as a speech pathologist in the Cranston Public School system.

Gallo mentioned other non-traditional methods of receiving credits, such as the T.E.A.C.H. scholarship program and the Child Wage$ Pilot Program, which are designed to address the shortage of childhood educators in Rhode Island. “The state will pay for people to go to school so that they can be certified to teach early ed, and their schooling is paid for, which to me is very untraditional,” Gallo said.

Leanne Barrett, a senior policy analyst at Rhode Island Kids Count, a non-profit which works to bolster childhood wellness in Rhode Island and had a hand in the creation of the two aforementioned programs, expressed the significance of the shortage in childhood education.

 “We've had a significant challenge in the early care and education system so that it includes childcare, preschool, early learning centers, and family child care. For decades, it's always been a very low paying job without a lot of benefits in terms of attracting and retaining qualified staff,” said Barrett.

Another detrimental problem in the early childhood education system in Rhode Island is inadequate funding. Parents of young children must often support their child’s education with their own money. Federal funding for the states in stabilizing access to childcare will expire in the next year and so this poses a question on how funding will be received.

Barrett references the Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Factbook, a document published annually by Rhode Island KIDS COUNT which summarizes a number of trends relating to children and families in the state.

She notes that, according to data from state and federal sources, less than 10% of families in Rhode Island can afford the average cost of childcare for one infant. A Rhode Island family in 2021 would need to earn at least $167,000 to afford the average cost for one preschooler at a licensed center.

Despite the unaffordable cost of tuition, Barrett says current tuition costs still aren’t enough to pay early childhood educators good wages.  

Barrett discussed the two programs Gallo spoke of which support childhood educators and take action in addressing these dilemmas. 

The T.E.A.C.H scholarship program, which started in 2011, helps educators already working to receive additional certifications in early childhood education by providing tuition for certification programs at Rhode Island College and Community College of Rhode Island.

“It's a way of taking a lot of really high quality training that happens at night and on the weekends, and you get some mentorship and observations of your practices in your family childcare program in your early learning center. And you can earn a credential,” said Barrett.

The organization has been funded primarily through ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding, which was administered to Rhode Island by the Federal Government during the pandemic. Additional funding for T.E.A.C.H. comes from the State Fiscal Recovery Fund.

“We received $2 million additional funds in 2023 through the Governor’s budget that we can use through 2026 to increase the number of early educators enrolled in T.E.A.C.H. and working on obtaining additional education,” said Lisa Hildebrand, the executive director and state affiliate for the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children.

Hilderbrand continues “Our annual operating budget for T.E.A.C.H. using CCDF funds is about $900 thousand and we currently have a little less than 100 T.E.A.C.H. scholars, but anticipate a big increase in that number in 2024 as we continue to enroll educators into new T.E.A.C.H. models.”

The Child Wage$ Pilot Program assists early childhood educators in another critical way: by bolstering their salaries. The program, which launched in January 2023 after over five years in development, resembles programs implemented in other states.

“North Carolina has had this childcare wages model for at least 20 years, they provide wage supplements,” Barrett explains. “So the employer pays you their wage, which could be $17 an hour or whatever it is, and the childcare wages program provides an additional amount of dollars directly to the individual in a check, and they do it twice per year.”

According to Hildebrand, Child Wage$ received over 600 applicants in 2023, but were only able to award supplements to 300 early educators. The level of funding given to each awardee varies based on level of education, and is awarded in two six-month installments.

Child Wage$ was funded in its first year by a federal grant entitled the Preschool Development Grant, but its funding in future is uncertain. Rhode Island Kids Count is working with several state legislators to pass what’s called the Early Education Stabilization Act, which would allow for the continuance of the Pilot Program. Barrett is hoping to receive $2.5 million for the program from this bill.

Career and Tech Programs in several Rhode Island school districts allow students to earn certifications like those funded by the T.E.A.C.H. program before students even leave high school. Cranston Public Schools offer career and technical programs incorporated in the curriculum so students have access to hands-on learning right in the classrooms. Not everyone is admitted into these programs. A selected number of students apply and are accepted into the program. Many different courses are available, including culinary, plumbing, construction, graphic design, entrepreneurship, pre-engineering, and child development.

Many students in these programs are able to receive certifications right out of high school and are able to seek and apply for job opportunities immediately, such as the medical track, at the end of which students can test for their Certified Nursing Assistant certification. Others, such as the plumbing program, offer hundreds of hours of apprenticeship training, which can go directly towards a journeyman qualification in a students’ respective trade.

John Fontaine, the principal of Cranston West describes the atmosphere at the Career and Technical School. “Like in Disney, you go to different worlds. Every classroom is so different. In one room, you're in a kitchen, then in the next room you're in front of a green screen, and in the next room you’ve got architectural design going on. No two classrooms are the same, we have our aquaculture program downstairs and it is the only one in the state.”

The Warwick Area Career and Technical Center has implemented similar programs as well. Apart from the other public schools in Warwick, this center offers programs serving 500 students learning from teachers in groups of 10-12. There are a multitude of programs offered there, similar to those offered in Cranston. Timothy Kane, the director of the center describes the three year program that is offered to students being educated in the electrical program.

“A master electrician that teaches the program is first in education as well as in his field,” said Kane. “Those interested will be able to receive a three year apprenticeship where they will work on things including the International Code Council which will help prepare them for a test they have to take. Apprentices are able to get a head start when it comes to a career.”

“After gaining industry experience and then hopefully after three years they can earn a credential, that credential means something in the business world,” Kane continued. “An example is an OSHA 10 card for the construction program. For our electricity program, for every trades program, we have agreements with Electric Boat. With every trace program, students are able to leave here and do an internship there or go on and work for them. I think we're just at a point in society where there is a lot of need for some of the jobs that students get trained for. The career center is really statewide.”

A well educated, well supported workforce is beneficial to all Rhode Islanders. While not everyone can thrive in traditional education spaces, everyone deserves the opportunity to find a fulfilling career with which they can support themselves and their families. These programs offer ways for students of every variety, from those leaving highschool to those already operating as professionals, to be the most qualified, and most prepared for a changing world that they can be.

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