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Nearly $1M Grant to Help MTCC Build Capacity in Early Childhood Education

Marion- McDowell Technical Community College’s 5-Star Child Development Center has long been recognized statewide as a model center for providing birth to kindergarten childcare services to children and parents, as well as training teachers and other employees to work in childcare centers throughout the state. Rachael Hartwell Butler, a lead teacher in the MTCC Child Development Center and a passionate advocate of Early Childhood Education, has the distinction of being one of the longest-serving childcare employees in the North Carolina Community College System.

Now, with a $985,000 grant from Dogwood Health Trust, McDowell Tech will enhance the college’s already robust Early Childhood Education (ECE) curriculum and expand training opportunities in an effort to alleviate dire shortages in childcare staffing that are commonplace in North Carolina and throughout the country. The college will focus a significant portion of their expansion efforts on students of color, first-generation college students and other historically-underserved student populations. 

Notably, the college will utilize resources from the grant to create a “playbook” or guide to assist other community colleges throughout North Carolina in replicating McDowell Tech’s already successful, model, childcare center. Currently, McDowell Tech’s Child Development Center is one of the few self-sustaining childcare centers on a community college campus in Western North Carolina.

Nearly $1M Grant to Help MTCC Build Capacity in Early Childhood Education

“We are grateful to Dogwood Health Trust for this opportunity to create more equitable solutions to build the Early Childhood Education (ECE) workforce,” said Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President. “Strong partnerships are what help MTCC and our community thrive, and we look forward to our continued collaborations with organizations like Centro Unido Latino Americano (CULA), McDowell County Schools, and local childcare centers to build the talent pipeline of qualified birth-to-kindergarten workers.”

Goals and Outcomes

Selected goals and outcomes for the ECE initiatives in the Dogwood Health Trust grant include the following:

  • A LatinX workforce coordinator in partnership with CULA will help triple the number of students of color in the ECE programs at McDowell Tech.

  • Increase the enrollment and boost retention and completion of ECE students at MTCC.

  • Thirty ECE teachers and 100 students are expected to participate in professional development activities utilizing an ECE best practices curriculum known as HighScope.

  • Active learning supplies and equipment needed for indoor and outdoor learning facilities will be purchased to upgrade the college’s Child Development Center.

  • The college will work with ECE graduates to encourage participation in the Growing Entrepreneurs Marion (GEM) program, with the goal of having at least 12 ECE/GEM graduates who intend to open early childcare centers in McDowell County.

  • The college will work with other ECE programs to increase participation in the Start with Equity WNC project, another Dogwood Health Trust project designed to build and expand ECE workforce solutions.

  • MTCC will use $240,000 of Dogwood Health Trust funding to increase the number of student scholarships in MTCC ECE programs.

  • Overall outcomes include increasing the number of first-generation college students in ECE programs by 50%, increasing the number of persons of color who take upper level ECE classes, and increasing retention and completion rates in ECE programs.

Administrative costs to complete these new initiatives are expected to cost approximately $485,000.

Dogwood Health Trust

According to a press release from Dogwood Health trust, the college’s grant of $985,000 is one of 10 grants totaling $8.3M awarded by Dogwood targeting non-profit and educational institutions throughout the region in an effort to sustain and improve the early childhood workforce. Collectively, these ten projects aim to attract a large number of adults to the early childhood profession, improve working conditions for existing early childhood employees and increase the number of students and employees earning ECE credentials.

Dogwood Health Trust is a private foundation based in Asheville, North Carolina with the sole purpose of dramatically improving the health and wellbeing of all people and communities of 18 counties and the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina.

“The quality of proposals to address early childhood educator workforce challenges speaks to the deep understanding and innovative solutions that exist among our grantee partners,” said Dr. Ereka Williams, Vice-President-Education at Dogwood Health Trust. “I look forward to seeing the long-term impacts and transformational change in the ECE workforce as a result of these initiatives.”

“Investing in the workforce behind the workforce—our Early Childhood Educators—is a win for everyone, said Dr. Susan Mims, CEO for Dogwood Health Trust. “Our children, working families, employers and educators all benefit, resulting in a stronger, healthier and more economically viable region for Western North Carolina.”

Rachael Butler, a Homegrown Childcare Star

Butler, the longest serving childcare employee in the North Carolina Community College System, has been with McDowell Tech’s Child Development Center since November of 1991 when she was hired as a part-time teacher for children in what was then the college’s evening childcare program. In high school, she had taken high school childcare classes and regularly babysat children when she was not in school. That experience helped her get her first teaching job.

Later, she became a full-time employee at the Child Development Center and was the Center’s cook, in addition to her teaching duties. After completing her Associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education in 1998, she became a lead teacher at the Center around 2000 and has worked with all age levels, birth to kindergarten age. For the last four years, she has been the lead teacher in the infant and one-year old classroom.

“I have always had a love for children,” she said. “To me, one of the best things about being an early childhood teacher is seeing the growth from when kids come in as infants or toddlers to when they leave the center to start kindergarten. I remember one little boy who cried every day when his mom left him for the first 10 months at the Center. By the time he was ready to go to kindergarten, he was pushing his mom out the door when she dropped him off.”

Rachael herself never had children of her own, although she has been married. “God opened up this profession for me,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t able to have children of my own, I love knowing that I’ve been able to love on these kids and have a positive impact on their lives in those important early years. The pay is not the greatest in this profession, but pay is not everything. I think about the number of lives I’ve impacted in my 31 years here and that is special to me.”

Ironically, given the historically low pay in Early Childhood programs, something current initiatives are seeking to improve, for the first five years she worked at McDowell Tech, Rachael continued to work as a cook at a steakhouse in Marion. But she is no stranger to hard work, and while she doesn’t quite know how she worked that many hours and attended college classes, she has no regrets.

Touching Lives and Making Friends

Rachael estimated that with movement in and out of the Center, she has worked with an average of 30 children per year during her time at the college, with that number varying by age group. For example, there are usually 8 to 10 children per year in the infant room, but higher numbers and higher turnover in the older age groupings. She still keeps up with lots of children and families she worked with through Facebook connections, and some she has personal connections with, attending children’s birthday parties and other special events as they grow older.

“It gives you a good feeling to know that you’re not forgotten about,” she said.

Some families over the years have gone a step further than inviting her to special events, such as one mom and dad who took her with them on their family vacation to Disney World after she taught their kids for several years. Rachael is a major fan of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and any child who has ever been in her classroom for very long also become Mickey and Minnie’s. She refers to the pair often throughout her day.

Having worked in Early Childhood Education for so long, Rachael has been keen to changes in the profession, as well as changes in children over the years. “We try to provide a structured environment and consistent redirection for children who misbehave here at the center,” she said, “but over the years, I’ve noticed that this redirection is not being reinforced as well by some of parents as they were thirty years ago.”

But she takes that all in stride. She loves what she does. In fact, if she had to do things over again, the biggest thing she would change is when she entered the profession. “I would have got into it right out of high school if I had to do it all over again,” she said. “It requires a lot of patience on a day-to-day basis, and it’s not the pie job that some people think it is, but I truly love what I do.”

After 31 years of teaching, though, Rachael said she is beginning to feel her age. “When I have my former children’s kids in my classroom, it makes me feel ‘real’ old!” But she has no plans to retire. And her boss and co-workers are glad that she doesn’t.

We Need More Rachael Butlers

“We need more Rachael Butlers. Mrs. Rachael and our other teachers, who are all MTCC graduates, are why our Child Development Center shines,” said Dr. Merritt, the MTCC President. “Every day, they prove why our Center is a model for Early Childhood Education, and why Dogwood Health Trust honored us with a grant to help us expand capacity in the Early Childhood Workforce, create greater equity in the profession, and create a playbook that other community colleges can follow to replicate our success. We look forward to training more Rachael’s and strengthening the Early Childhood profession.  We also owe a debt of gratitude to Mebane Rash, CEO from EducationNC. During her visit with our Child Development Center in the Fall 2022 semester, she made us aware of this grant opportunity. This was a true community effort!