University of Vermont

University Communications

Trinity Children's Center Meeting Needs of Diverse Population

Grant will help pay tuition of UVM interns at the center

Junior Allison Myers works with a pre-school student on critical early math skills including sorting and counting using colored glass and a light table (Photo: Sally McCay)

When Maureen Danielczyk started working at Trinity Children’s Center 37 years ago, the mission of the founding Sisters of Mercy was to help single mothers finish school by caring for their children. Though that commitment remains, the needs of today’s children and their families have changed to reflect the increasingly diverse population of the local community.

“Burlington has changed a lot since 1976, but with the help of local agencies and UVM’s early childhood program we’ve been able to adapt to the changing needs of our children and families,” says Danielczyk, director of Trinity Children’s Center (TCC) for more than 25 years. "This is a unique place because we integrate children with special needs with children from refugee families, homeless children, and children of UVM faculty and staff. It's a pretty special place."

The growing diversity of TCC, a non-profit early childhood facility located on UVM’s Trinity Campus, has created an ideal learning lab for students in UVM’s Early Childhood Special Education Program. By the time students graduate they will have interacted with professionals from a wide range of local agenices including Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Head Start, and the Burlington School District’s Essential Early Education Program. Other local agencies that collaborate with TCC include the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program; Association for Africans Living in Vermont; Visiting Nurses Association; Easter Seals; and the Department of Children and Families/State Services.

The 37-year relationship between Trinity and the Burlington’s Essential Early Education Program, located in the same building, is especially beneficial because it allows students to observe how the school district identifies children with significant developmental challenges and administers family-centered early childhood special education services. TCC has 15 children on individualized education programs (IEPs) who are integrated into a diverse overall student population of 70 children, including at least three children with special needs in each classroom.

Grant to pay tuition of seniors in Early Childhood Special Education Program

Jennifer Hurley, assistant professor of education and program coordinator for the Early Shildhood Special Education Program, recently landed a $1.25 million grant from Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs that will be used to pay for the tuition for seniors in the program who are interning at TCC. Susan Ryan, director of the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, was also an author on the grant.

“There’s no way we would have gotten this grant without the strong relationship we have with Trinity Children’s Center and the agencies they work with,” says Hurley, adding that TCC earned the rare National Association for the Education of Young Children accreditation and was awarded the highest possible five-star rating by the State of Vermont. “It’s an ideal setting to prepare scholars to work with all of Vermont’s children, including children with disabilities experiencing the additional challenges of being English language learners, and experiencing poverty or homelessness. Many of the teachers at TCC are graduates of the program and come in well prepared.”

In her application, Hurley outlined plans for preparing students to meet the needs of children with disabilities and the shockingly high number of homeless children. “Families with young children are one of the most rapidly increasing groups with homelessness nationwide,” Hurley says. “Nearly one-quarter of all homeless people are under the age of six, so there's a real need for intentional collaboration between agencies that provide services for families experiencing homelessness, including Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Ed agencies. Scholars in teacher preparation programs must be made aware of the need for research-based methods for serving homeless families and children with disabilities and have pre-service experiences in family shelters.”

Rita Markley, executive director of COTS, the largest organization for the homeless in Vermont, explains in her letter of support for the grant application that the number of Vermont children under the age of five living in emergency shelters and overflow motels has tripled since 2008.

“We have tried to cobble together educational and enrichment programs but have no real expertise in this field,” writes Markley, who is working with Hurley to plan a practicum experience that will benefit UVM students and children with disabilities in area shelters. “There is a dire need in our community for early childhood educators who have appropriate training and preparation to work with families and children who are homeless. We are thrilled to be forming a partnership with the Early Childhood Special Education Program at UVM.”

Paying back loans by helping children in need

Over the last decade the demand for early childhood special education teachers has increased from about 13,000 to more than 27,000, while the number of graduates in such programs remains inadequate to satisfy the needs of the approximately 299,848 infants and toddlers receiving early intervention services, according to the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center. In an effort to bridge this gap, students receiving free tuition from the grant are required to work as an early childhood special educator for one year for every semester of tuition they receive. Students receiving one year of tuition, for example, could satisfy their service obligation to the federal government by working for two years as an early childhood special educator anywhere in the country.

Students are also required to complete the UVM course “Problems in Education,” which includes 40 hours of research on the Young Children with Special Needs Project. Students must also complete 40 hours of practicum experience at COTS by providing support at one of four family shelters in Burlington on a regular basis to play and engage in activities with young children living in the shelters.

“You can read all about teaching skills like pro-social conflict resolution and emotionally supportive conflict resolution, but until you apply it in the classroom it’s hard to see how it works in practice,” says Kate Evans, a 2012 graduate of the UVM Honors College and one of eight UVM alumni working at TCC. “By working here as an undergraduate I got a good feel for the day-to-day routine of being a teacher. It made the transition to working as a fulltime teacher much easier after graduation. I would have been well prepared for wherever I got a job.”

For information about providing scholarship support for students in the College of Education and Social Services, contact Trish Shabbaz, (802) 656-3910, trish.shabazz@uvm.edu.