Fort Worth resident June Robles was skeptical when she first heard about an early educator apprenticeship program.

She learned she could enroll and get a federally recognized certificate to work in early childhood education — all without leaving her job at Good Shepherd Christian Academy and not paying a single cent. Robles took the plunge.

Two years later, Robles donned a cap and gown and walked across the stage in the Amon Carter Event Center at Lena Pope to pick up her certificate on Aug. 6. She was one of 19 people who make up Camp Fire First Texas’ second class of early education apprentices. Together, they are part of a growing national trend of Americans using apprenticeships to kick start their careers.

“This is the first stage I get to cross,” Robles said, looking at the stage she just crossed. “But I’m not stopping here. In the fall, I’m starting classes to get my associate degree.”

Camp Fire started the apprenticeship to provide current early educators a way to get on a trajectory for a stable and long-term career in early childhood education, a field known for high turnover and low wages. To be eligible, applicants must already have a full-time job as a teacher in a child care center and have a high school diploma or equivalent. 

The Tarrant County Commissioners Court recently dedicated more than $1.3 million in federal stimulus funding to the program.

The early educator apprenticeship program is unique because it’s the first U.S. Department of Labor-certified apprenticeship program for early educators in Texas, Camp Fire President and CEO Lauren Richard said.

Apprentices are paired with a mentor and coached throughout the duration of the program. Apprentices can earn up to 33 hours of college credit that is transferable to an institution like Tarrant County College, one of the program partners.

Dana Brocks is the director of the apprenticeship program. A key part of the program was making it manageable for apprentices, who are trying to balance their jobs and home lives while taking classes in the evenings, she said. Classes are entirely virtual to make it easier for apprentices.

Depending on apprentices’ experience levels, the program can take about two years to complete.

“We meet them where they are and they choose based on their needs and goals which pathway they want to take,” Richard said. 

Some of the pathways apprentices can take include continuing their education to earn an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree or even hopping back into their job after getting their certificate.

Next year, Camp Fire plans to launch a new track aimed at administrators. Additionally, the program will grow its apprenticeship to include educators who are starting their associate and bachelor degrees. Currently, once someone graduates from the apprenticeship program, Camp Fire passes them along back to their workplace or higher education institution.

“That means they stay with us in our system, and we do all the mentoring and coaching all the way through the end of their bachelor’s,” Brocks said.

The program has quickly grown beyond North Texas. While educators from Fort Worth, Dallas and other cities in the Metroplex have participated in the apprenticeship program, the latest class has apprentices from San Antonio and more rural counties in Central Texas, Brocks said. 

“We’re broadening our scope,” she said.

Ultimately, Camp Fire wants to help elevate the field of early childhood education and make it a viable career for people. Richard, Camp Fire’s president, sees the program as a way to better develop the early educator workforce. The ripple effects from that are tremendous, she said.

“The more educators we can get in front of kids and provide a high quality education, the better our workforce is prepared for the future,” Richard said. 

Robles, the apprenticeship graduate, knows how hard it was to balance her full-time job, home life and classes. She leaned on her family for support. Her fellow classmates and their teachers pushed each other every step of the way, especially when Robles felt like quitting.

“They’re all there for you to keep pushing you to keep going forward,” she said. “There’s no need for you to even second guess anything.”

Robles hopes more early childhood educators follow her footsteps. Her life was changed, and soon she will begin her classes at TCC. Eventually, she plans to obtain her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington. 

The skepticism Robles had is long gone. Now, she has a group of people to lean on as she continues her career in early childhood education.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.