WOU awarded federal grant for early childhood education project

By Peter Wong
Statesman Journal

The 45 students will fill a growing need in Oregon schools as early-childhood learning gets a new emphasis under a statewide educational reorganization.

The students will earn bachelor’s degrees in the field with a specialization in early childhood/early intervention special education. That blend is what is unique about WOU’s Promoting Inclusion in Early Childhood Education (PIECE) project, according to its co-director, Cindy Ryan.

“When they walk into a classroom, teachers will have children who are talented and gifted and children at the opposite end of the spectrum,” Ryan said. “They have to figure out ways to help all these children. Our courses are going to be geared so that teachers are prepared to work in diverse classrooms.”

The grant takes effect this fall.

Ryan, who has taught a course in special education for prospective general-education teachers, said many students have not thought about how to deal with a diversity of students.

The federal grant will advance one of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s goals of integrating all early-childhood programs, which lawmakers this year placed within a new division of the Oregon Department of Education.

“WOU’s new federal grant is another critical piece in Gov. Kitzhaber’s and the Early Learning Council’s goal of ensuring Oregon children are ready for kindergarten,” said Jada Rupley, Oregon early-learning system director. “A program to train professionals in early identification and services to children is another exciting development.”

The money comes from the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs and goes to the Teaching Research Institute and WOU’s College of Education.

“Project PIECE will not only help culturally diverse groups of child-care professionals obtain a bachelor’s degree, but will also help meet the growing needs of children with disabilities to be included in settings with typically developing children,” said Patti Blasco, co-director of the project.

“Forty percent of Oregon children, birth to age 5, are considered at risk. This program will help early childhood professionals meet the growing need.”

The grant comes on the heels of legislative approval in the 2013 session of $17.2 million in state bonds — $1.4 million of that amount to be matched by donations — for a new College of Education building. WOU is expanding at the same time that Willamette University is closing its Graduate College of Education.

“The stars are aligning for us,” Ryan said.

The grant also comes on the heels of a national requirement that 50 percent of teachers in federally funded Head Start — known here as the Oregon prekindergarten program, which is under the Oregon Department of Education — have earned bachelor’s or advanced degrees in early childhood education or another subject.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requirement, which takes effect Sept. 30, also specifies that course work must be equivalent to a major relating to early childhood education, and includes experience in teaching preschool-age children.

“As our nation and state are focusing more on what we do with our youngest learners, we want our teachers to be highly qualified,” WOU’s Ryan said. “This program fits naturally into all of that.”

pwong@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6745 or Twitter.com/capitolwong

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