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Latino parents turn educators at bilingual preschool

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Apprentices learn from teachers at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool.

As North Carolina’s Latino population grows, so does demand for bilingual educators.

Charlotte Bilingual Preschool is addressing this need from within. This fall, the school will train seven apprentices, mostly parents of current or former students, as early childhood educators.

Something notable about the preschool in east Charlotte is how many staffers first began as parents who enrolled their children at the school.

That’s how program assistant Mari Carmen Corona became aware of the professional opportunities at the school. She was drawn in by the idea of bilingual, multicultural education for her children. But then she started to notice how other parents were benefiting from the school community as well.

“I realized there was a big opportunity for me here to be able to start again,” Corona said. “I think that was what grabbed my attention the most about working here was the big help they gave to not only children but to families.”

Charlotte Bilingual Preschool hallway
Kayla Young
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WFAE
Students return for the regular school year next week at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool.

Corona will transition from the front office to teaching in the classroom this fall thanks to the school’s apprenticeship and professional training program, which recently received accreditation from ApprenticeshipNC.

Workforce Development Director Susana Jerez says Corona’s story captures the journey taken by many other parents turned teachers.

“Mari is sort of like a reflection of our program, especially the workforce development program, because she was first a mom and she was an active parent within the family program. She volunteered,” Jerez said. “Then she decided to take classes for workforce development.”

Jerez says the need for early childhood educators is great. Before the pandemic, researchers with the Council for a Strong America found that 44% of North Carolinians lived in a childcare “desert,” meaning that for each student slot at a licensed daycare, there were three children to fill the opening.

“We are a daycare desert in Charlotte,” Jerez said. “So, the more people that are better qualified, the more the chances of them having home daycares. For example, that are qualified with somebody who has studied, who has certification to be able to provide the services.”

For many of the Latina mothers here, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool provided the break they needed to enter the United States workforce.

Jennifer Mahecha, who studied psychology in Colombia, was able to return to her passion for early childhood development. She began as a substitute teacher and now she’ll lead her own classroom at a second preschool that Charlotte Bilingual is opening in south Charlotte.

“It’s something that you can’t describe,” Mahecha said. “You don’t stop dreaming and to achieve it is very gratifying as a person and as a professional, to be able to continue climbing and to know that what you’ve brought from your country has a use in this one.”

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Kayla Young
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WFAE
Executive Director Banu Valladares, left, and Workforce Development Director Susana Jerez speak to other educators in the lobby of Charlotte Bilingual Preschool.

The job opportunities also mean empowerment for families, explained Banu Valladares, the school’s executive director.

“What I am most excited about is that it creates economic mobility for our families, for families that might think that they don't have a pathway to work in the United States,” Valladares said. “We actually find the pathway and then give them the tools and we pay them for a whole year for them to be able to learn how to become a dual-language early educator.”

The apprenticeship program partners with Central Piedmont Community College, UNC Charlotte and Charlotte Works to provide the necessary education credits for certification.

Currently, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool serves more than 130 children in-house, in addition to more than 100 families in home-based programs.

By 2030, the preschool’s leadership hope to have trained enough educators to serve 1,500 children in the Charlotte community.

Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte.