Central Oregon Community College

It’s project day for the “Children’s Literature & Curriculum” class at Central Oregon Community College (COCC), and the students, circled into two groups, are taking turns giving five-minute presentations on their author of choice. With a small stack of illustrated books piled up on each desk, it’s as if an epic “story time” is unfolding on a college campus. And, well, it is.

“This one was my favorite,” said Alyssa Hale, holding up a copy of “Fox the Tiger” by author and illustrator Corey R. Tabor. “It’s a super cute book about being OK with who you are.” Hale reads the book aloud to the class, turning the pages for all to see. (Spoiler alert: With painted-on stripes, the fox does momentarily transform into a tiger, but soon realizes he’s happiest as himself.)

The students talk about story themes. They share creative ideas for connecting children with the text. It’s all centered on encouraging and supporting early literacy—igniting that vital spark between budding minds and books.

And while spotlighting notable names in children’s lit, the students also get a chance to step into the role of an educator, to lead and engage a class. On the wall, a handmade poster that honors Friedrich Froebel, the “Father of Kindergarten,” regards the scene with quiet approval.

Also observing is instructor Angie Cole. She walks between both groups, jotting down notes and watching the future educators in action. “Our classes are super interactive,” Cole said after the presentations. To that end, she shares this advice with her students at the start of the term: “If you’re more of a listener, become a speaker. And if you’re more of a speaker, become a listener.”

The Early Childhood Education program at COCC cultivates these skills—and many more—in prepping its students for careers with kids. As part of the college’s Education department (which also trains students to be teachers in secondary education), the Early Childhood Education program offers three degrees and two certificates.

It’s a tight-knit program, with classes capped at 15 students, akin to a cohort model but without the structured pacing of a cohort. The team-like atmosphere is an extension of how the faculty themselves collaborate—they intentionally share an office and sometimes hang a clothesline clipped with sticky notes as a way to keep agenda items visible and unifying.

Classes are offered at the Bend, Redmond and Madras campuses; some feature online and hybrid formats. A portion of the curriculum is taught in Spanish.

“Our students are coming from really diverse experiences and backgrounds,” said program director and professor Amy Howell, Ph.D., who added that the age range of her students this past year spanned from 16 to 75. “Not all of our students have chosen education because they themselves loved school. Sometimes it’s just the opposite—they’re trying to make a difference for others.”

Every student that takes an Early Childhood Education class engages in a field placement. This supervised experience, requiring about three hours per week, gives students—through volunteer work or part-time employment—direct experience with children. It helps solidify career plans.

New graduate Jamie Ruiz, for instance, is currently a kindergarten educational assistant. “Last year, my advisor connected me with the Bend International School staff,” she said. “This opportunity has allowed me to get experience in a field that I want to continue to study.” Using her Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer (AAOT) degree to continue at OSU-Cascades, Ruiz plans on becoming an elementary school teacher.

In fact, more than half of the program’s students are pursuing teaching licensure. Locally, OSU-Cascades offers both a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and a bachelor’s in elementary education (with licensure). George Fox University, which has a Redmond presence, also offers an MAT program.

Some students will go on to work outside the classroom, as advocates and policymakers. Some will take a faster track into employment, such as the 21-credit Developmentally Appropriate Learning Environments (DALE) certificate, which preps students to work in preschools and other non-licensure settings.

Though their academic goals may vary, all are part of a program that highlights a gleaming truth from day one. “We want to really emphasize, fundamentally, that the first 2,000 days of life are critical for lifelong development—and that’s really birth through five,” said Howell. “We know now, more than ever, that investing in early learning is one of the greatest investments that we can make as a society in terms of long-term benefits.”

A new resource at COCC is helping to deepen that investment. In the Barber Library on the Bend campus, the Children’s Literature & Equity Resource Center, or CLERC, is a sunny reading room built around an extensive collection of equity-focused children’s books. With comfy chairs and couches, Japanese Daruma dolls and a resident stuffed giraffe (named Lucy), the space is welcoming and culturally embracing.

“When we’re making decisions in any learning environment, we need to take into account that child’s development, their social and cultural background, and then the group of children that are with them,” Howell added. “To serve a child, we have to think about that broader family cultural context, all the time.” It’s an awareness that contributes to a well-rounded, open-hearted education—giving students the skills, experience and perspective they need to achieve.

For more details on the Early Childhood Education program, visit cocc.edu or call 541-383-7700.