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Perspective | Developing the education workforce can have big impact

Did you know that 90% of a child’s brain development occurs before he or she is 5 years old? During this time, children make vital brain connections through their everyday experiences.

To make the most of these crucial early years, children must have access to high-quality early education led by qualified, dedicated teachers.

Investing in our future

By investing in and training high-quality early childhood teachers, our community can positively influence children’s readiness to learn and their chances of success throughout their lives. This early investment pays off for individuals, schools, the economy and our society as a whole.

Research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman found that investing in early childhood education had the highest rate of return compared to education investments later in life. Shaping children’s cognitive development becomes more difficult as they get older and brain plasticity declines.

To reap these benefits, we must ensure our community has a steady pipeline of well-trained early childhood professionals. These educators help young children build “soft skills” that serve them well into adulthood, such as a positive attitude, conflict resolution, team-building, effective communication and honesty.

Training the next generation of educators

There is a growing need for more educated early childhood professionals and elementary school teachers in the workforce, especially in Henderson and Transylvania counties. Other professions also rely heavily on those who care for and assist in their young children’s education, so that they can go to work every day.

Individuals who want to help nurture a child’s brain development, invest in families and make a difference in a child’s life during their most formative years should consider an early childhood or school-age education degree. At Blue Ridge, we offer two associate degree programs for aspiring educators: early childhood education and school-age education. We also offer four certificate programs.

Because there is such a growing need for NC Pre-K teachers and early childhood educators to continue their education to a bachelor’s degree program, we have worked diligently to create a seamless 2+2 transfer articulation agreement with all UNC system four-year institutions as well as many private colleges and universities, such as Mars Hill and Lees-McRae College.

Our education programs partner with many area businesses, including child care programs, preschool programs, early childhood agencies and local elementary schools, where our students not only conduct their practicums, but also volunteer their time throughout their program as part of our emphasis on service-learning.

Blue Ridge has an average of 10 to 12 students who graduate each year from these programs and many more who graduate with certificates. Many of our students in the early childhood program are already employed by early childhood agencies and programs before graduation.

Innovation in early childhood education

In addition to growing the early childhood education workforce, Blue Ridge is committed to innovation in education. In appreciation of our natural surroundings and the growing research on the benefits of nature play, the incorporation of nature-based experiences has become an integral part of our education programs.

Research on the benefits of engaging young children in natural learning environments is exponential. Nature play involves active engagement and is a movement to take children back to what once was the natural way to play — outdoors, investigating and learning.

Our students create activities and lessons that encourage children to use their creativity while developing imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Students are given opportunities to attend workshops and trainings that include resources and activities that foster nature play.

We have partnered with one of our graduates, Vanessa Gilliam, who owns and operates Nessa’s Young’uns Natural Play Center, located just around the corner from our Henderson County campus. Vanessa has become well-known not only in our community, but throughout the state for her advocacy efforts for outdoor learning and nature play.

After Vanessa completed her associate degree with Blue Ridge, she continued to finish her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. She is now one of our adjunct instructors.

It is rewarding to see our students and graduates get excited about the importance of early childhood and making a difference in the lives of children and families. When we invest in the youngest members of our community, we are investing in our future.

Laura Leatherwood

Laura B. Leatherwood, Ed.D., is the president of Blue Ridge Community College. Leatherwood was selected as the 2022 President of the Year by the NC Community College System. Prior to Blue Ridge, she served for 17 years in various roles at Haywood Community College. Dr. Leatherwood holds a doctorate degree in university and community college leadership, a master’s degree in human resource development, and a bachelor’s degree in business law, all from Western Carolina University.