A new state grant is strengthening SUNY Cortland’s commitment to “learning by doing” by giving some early childhood education majors an opportunity to work as paid employees of the SUNY Cortland Child Care Center.
Under the pilot Early Childhood Worker program, eight students this spring and another eight next fall will work 20 hours a week as paid interns in the university’s 29-year-old, continuously reaccredited child care center. They will undergo extensive background checks, enabling them to do more than simply observe and interact with children under supervision.
In addition to immersing the student interns in a valuable real-life early childhood job experience, to complement their academic coursework, the $45,000 grant helps meet the campus community’s demand for additional child care support.
“These are actual employees and not just extra hands in the classroom,” said Stephanie Fritz, the child care center director, who developed Cortland’s internship grant proposal with Kim Wieczorek, chair of the Childhood/Early Childhood Education Department.
“Our practicum students cannot change diapers,” Fritz explained, describing legal limits placed on students during a conventional field experience at a child care center. “They cannot be left alone with the children. They don’t have the bigger responsibilities.”
By comparison, student interns in this program can cover mid-day breaks or reduce extended shifts for professional staff. They also maintain adequate staff-to-child ratios.
“That really helps out on our budget,” Fritz said. “We’re not-for-profit so we try to maintain quality care while also not overcharging parents, because it is such an expense. The savings that we’re receiving helps us to not have to put that cost onto parents.”
Some of those parents are SUNY Cortland students, highlighting one of the main reason SUNY made the Early Childhood Worker paid internship program available to Cortland and 16 other campuses: Supporting campus child care centers advances SUNY’s educational mission.
“Typically, a parent who has a child on campus in the child care center, their completion rates are higher than their counterpart of parents whose children are not, said Fritz. “They feel they can do their work and accomplish what they need to in order to get their degree.”
Courtney Gagnon, a junior childhood/early childhood major from Windsor, N.Y., whose 9-month old son is in the center, agreed.
“I would prefer Matthew to be closer to me because of his age over any other benefit of the childcare,” Gagnon said. “It feels so good to know the people who are in his classes are trusted individuals and the people who are observers of him are peers of mine in the program.”
The grant pays each of the internship’s childhood/early childhood education majors New York state’s minimum wage 20 hours per week. That includes six paid hours a week toward their required 60 hours of fieldwork per semester, plus 14 extra hours of work per week.
“It’s giving them that piece of experience that they need to decide, ‘Maybe I’m not meant to teach in the school district, but in early childhood,” Fritz said. “It’s going to encourage early childhood professionals to actually go into the early childhood education field.”
They might consider a range of alternative early childhood employers to child care centers, including Head Start, Early Head Start, early intervention to children with special needs or special education itinerant teaching while traveling between state-qualified centers.
SUNY Cortland’s grant is part of $500,000 allocated statewide by SUNY to the internship program.
That program, in turn, is funded by a $4.5 million pie that SUNY has distributed to strengthen campus child care centers — often by starting new ones on campuses that traditionally did not offer the service — as part of the Child Care Stabilization Funds by the Office of Children and Family Services.
The pot of money originated from federal funds intended to help the hard-hit child care industry get back on its feet after the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal American Rescue Plan Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act aims to help with operational costs such as personnel and training as well as support for the mental health needs of employees and their children.
In March, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the initiative as part of the state’s commitment to improve or establish child care centers at all 64 SUNY campuses.
“Child care services are a critical part of our economic recovery, providing parents much-needed support as they pursue an education or join the workforce,” Hochul said. “This funding is an important step toward my administration’s goal of eliminating child care deserts across SUNY campuses statewide and adequately investing in our state’s students, faculty and working parents.”