UNK Confronts a Growing Issue in Early Childhood Education

Chelsea Bartling and Sarah Collins
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by Kristin Howard

Sarah Collins, a sophomore from Omaha, knew she wanted to be a teacher long before choosing the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

She expected a standard arc of education classes to prepare her with method and theory, then a semester of student teaching to get real-world experience to launch her career in the classroom. Instead, she began working with students almost right away with a job at the LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center at UNK.

Collins is delighted with the change of plans.

“This job has been such a light in my life, and applying here was truly the best decision I have made as a college student thus far,” she said.

The Plambeck Center opened in November 2019 in University Village, a mixed-use, urban-village development that’s located just south of UNK’s main campus. The center provides developmentally appropriate early education for up to 176 children from infant to 6-year-olds, including those with special needs. It features 11 classrooms dedicated to three research-based philosophies for early childhood education.

“This hands-on experience has cemented my desire to pursue my career in education,” said Collins. “Working with kids of all ages has broadened my developmental experience. Interactions with the parents have improved my professionalism.”

The Plambeck Center’s facility also serves as a lab where students from UNK and the University of Nebraska Medical Center prepare for their future careers through experiential learning activities, such as classroom observations, practicums, internships, student teaching, diagnostic testing and research.

Interim Director Chelsea Bartling manages the center’s day-to-day operations, collaborating with various campus departments and community organizations on learning, child development and research initiatives.

“At the Plambeck Center we encourage our college students to come and learn through interactions with the children and teachers here at the center,” Bartling said. “Hands-on experiences with early childhood students provide our future educators a valuable learning experience that tandems the university teaching. It puts the practices learned into play and helps to guide our future educators in their teaching journey.”

Collins said the learning is constant, and UNK and UNMC students are included in many aspects of the center.

“I was recently promoted to teacher’s assistant and have been involved in lesson planning and have had experience being the lead instructor when the lead teacher is not in the room,” she said.

In addition to serving Kearney-area families, the Plambeck Center addresses a statewide need for developing early childhood educators in a hands-on setting that exposes them to the best teaching methods.

“We know there’s a severe shortage of high-quality early childhood education providers,” said Bartling. “That’s been a big issue, especially for rural Nebraska. It is important for our future educators to continue their educational journey, as students still need highly qualified teachers to teach even amongst the teaching challenges that our society is currently facing.”

It’s a workforce need and a community need, she said, noting that childcare and early education are among the top priorities for employees and businesses looking to move into a community.

“As individuals come to town, child care is one of the first things they look for. We as a center and business need to be ready to help support families,” said Bartling.

Kearney residents and UNK graduates Jennifer and Chuck Rowling recognize the advantages of the Plambeck Center’s educational approach.

“Our family has been fortunate to have all three of our children attend the Plambeck Center,” said Jennifer Rowling. “The excellent teachers and students who work with the children daily are the true heart of the center and do an amazing job providing the early childhood education that sets these children apart from their peers. Learning through play and exploration is so important for children, and the center has figured out how to incorporate fun and learning daily.

“The Plambeck Center is a perfect example of … why the quality of the teachers and staff makes all the difference.”

The center’s role in educating early childhood teachers and other professionals is expected to address a growing need across Nebraska.

Through 2026, the Nebraska Department of Labor projects that there will be an average of almost 2,300 job openings for child care workers each year and a cumulative 12% expansion of total employment in this occupation between 2016 and 2026.

Preschool teaching alone is expected to have more than 100 openings per year and a 9% total employment growth during this decade.

The Nebraska Department of Education conducts its annual Teacher Vacancy Survey in PK-12 schools each fall. Its 2019 survey showed early childhood education sitting 10th among 15 endorsements with a shortage of educators — the fifth straight year it has been identified as a shortage area.

UNK’s Early Childhood Inclusive Teaching Field Endorsement Degree program, which is among the largest in the state with more than 250 students, is playing a key role in building this skilled workforce. Students at the Plambeck Center are also being trained for all different types of classrooms. In January, the center opened its Montessori Early Childhood classroom, which will enable more teachers to complete credentials in Montessori and support LaVonne Plambeck’s complete vision.

Mark Reid, Ph.D., dean of the College of Education, who took the reins as dean in 2020, reflected on the impact Plambeck’s passion for education has had at UNK.

“Many thanks go out to Dr. LaVonne Plambeck, for whom the center is named,” Reid said. “Her enthusiasm and generosity were imperative for this aesthetically and functionally beautiful facility to become a reality. In addition to the traditional classrooms, one of the spaces has been fully outfitted for Montessori teaching, for which Dr. Plambeck has an international reputation. At UNK, we are always looking for and improving the best and effective ways to prepare our teachers.”

Bartling said, “As a graduate from the Early Childhood Inclusive Endorsement program at UNK, I feel that the program and those hands-on experiences of the university child care center played a huge role in where I am as an administrator and former preschool teacher/special educator.”

Bartling’s UNK teaching and administration experience has come full circle. Collins is at the beginning of her journey but loves what her future may hold.

“One day, when I was working with the pre-K students, I spent the last half hour of the day working directly with a few of them on writing the alphabet. They were so excited about learning and displaying their knowledge, and it really made an impact on me,” said Collins. “That spark in their eyes — that’s what all of this is about. This moment painted a picture of what my future will be like.”

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