Leading High-Quality Early Childhood Programs
Katherine Hutchens is the director of early childhood services, Methodist Home for Children, Raleigh, NC. She oversees two childcare centers, Jordan Child and Family Enrichment Center and the brand-new Barbara H. Curtis Center. Katherine has a bachelor’s degree in history from Dickinson College and held a teaching license for secondary social studies. She holds a master’s degree in early childhood from Augusta College. She has enjoyed over 25 years of early childhood program administration in Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina.
ED: How did you begin your career in early childhood?
Accidentally! I knew I wanted to work with children, but I studied history in college. I planned to return to school for social work eventually. My plan was to work for a year before applying to a social work program. I started working part time at both social services and a large national chain childcare center. I worked at this childcare center for 18 months with 6 different directors. During this time, I was promoted to assistant director and eventually to a center director. I then decided to move to a family owned center instead of working for the national chain. After this move, I decided to continue my career in early childhood, and went back to school. This is also where I was introduced to inclusion. At my work, there was a child with global delays. This child was the first child with disabilities who enrolled in our program. She used a wheelchair and did not use verbal communication. Through her parents, our director learned that there were many families struggling to find care for their children with disabilities. When our director decided to take this child into our program, the staff did not know how to support her. So the parents helped the staff plan for the child’s support, teaching the staff what they knew. This partnership created learning opportunities for our staff and the child.
While I was in school, I also had an opportunity to work part-time at a half-day preschool. It was founded by Quakers in a small city in Georgia in the ‘60s and the school was inclusive of students regardless of their race, religious background and ethnicity. This experience and learning about the work of Vivian Gussin Paley set me on a path to quality, equity, inclusion and non-profit early childhood education.
After graduate school, my first job was at United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), North Carolina in 1999. I worked at an inclusive center for children with disabilities. About half of the children at my center had developmental delays and the other half were typically developing children. Here, I learned about research and practices about inclusion. After UCP, I moved to Methodist Home for Children (MHC) and I have been with MHC for almost 14 years.
ED: What efforts have you been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?
While I was with UCP, I worked on Smart Start grants to support community inclusion. Smart Start grants were designed to improve early care and education. Smart Start provided funds for infant-toddler programs, itinerant teachers and developmental specialists, case management, one-on-one support, and training to childcare providers in the community. I provided teacher support and coaching to expand community capacity to serve children with disabilities in least restrictive environments. I tried to help early care educators understand what special needs mean, what they may look like in classrooms, and how to support children with special needs.
At MHC, we intend our early childhood program to be a model center. We have had pilot projects, partnered with Head Start and developmental day programs, and provided outreach and training through various Smart Start grants. We currently serve as a demonstration site for the Early Educator Support, Licensure and Professional Development unit of the Division of Child Development and Early Education providing training opportunities for birth through kindergarten licensed teachers. Our focus on continuous improvement has positioned us as an example of high-quality care and education. Additionally, we’ve had the opportunity to serve as an example of high quality, blended care and education for local and state leadership and sometimes for national and international leaders in the field.
Personally, I’ve served on Smart Start Boards in Lee and Cumberland counties, and periodically serve on committees in Wake county.
ED: How do you prepare children and families in your program to be ready for the new school year?
I think one of the most important things for children to have a successful school year is their competency to build new relationships with new friends and teachers, and to adapt to new places. Therefore, in our program, we put a lot of emphasis on social emotional development. Children are taught how to get along with others and how to participate in groups and feel confident.
We also want our children to get excited about learning. We encourage child-initiated, and child- directed learning activities to help them develop love for new experiences and learning. Exploration and science naturally sparks curiosity in children, but it takes more effort on the teachers’ side to intentionally promote problem solving skills and creative ideas during exploration and daily activities.
During the year proceeding kindergarten, we introduce parents to what is coming next. We have an extensive magnet school system in our county so we help parents with registration, school tours, and the application process. We educate parents and children on what to expect in kindergarten and how to stay engaged and empowered despite the reduced degree of contact with the child’s teacher.
ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in your work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
Service delivery is fractured and doesn’t address family needs in a seamless manner. For example, a family of a child with special needs encounters numerous service agencies and professionals even before the child starts kindergarten. This may include childcare subsidy, Head Start, home visiting, early intervention, preschool special education, therapy services, and others. It can be extremely difficult for a parent to access all these different services to meet their needs. How can we streamline all these different pieces to meet unique families’ needs? Also, funding doesn’t support the cost of quality care and we are in great need of qualified professionals to work in early childhood. I think the biggest challenge is that the work we do isn’t broadly valued. All the other challenges stem from this.
At MHC, we have overcome challenges because MHC has valued our work and actively engaged in fundraising to offset our deficit. We have had some opportunities for creative partnerships. For example, we partnered with Head Start in Wake county. Early Head Start and Head Start programs at MHC received federal funding, and we were able to combine the federal funding with state funding to meet highest quality benchmarks in child and family components, and to provide wraparound services and all-day services. We continue to build partnerships with other non-profit and public organizations. Recently, we partnered with an affordable housing developer. We are operating a new early childhood center and building family supports using the data from the affordable housing’s community needs assessment. Partnerships like this foster innovative opportunities for financing early childhood programs (e.g., tax credits).
ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in improving early childhood services and programs?
Seek out learning opportunities! There is a wealth of information out there if you believe that you can always be better. Look for it. Learn it. Teach it to your staff. Have high expectations for yourself, your program, staff, families, and children.
At MHC, we are much more than an early childhood program. We work extensively with children, youth, and families in crisis. We provide services for foster children, family preservation and reunification, and juvenile offenders, just to name a few! Because I’ve had the opportunity to learn from strong leaders who have a broader impact, I’ve been continuously exposed to and encouraged to seek out new information and opportunities that I can apply in my own area. Keep your doors open, eyes and ears open, heart and mind open and new opportunities will present.
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