The cohort program at MCLA helped Heather Thompson balance work, raising a child, and continuing her education. She praised the agreement making it easier for others to follow her path to higher education.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Heather Thompson started going to college in 1998. And then found out she was expecting a child.
She returned home to the Berkshires and six months after giving birth, enrolled at Berkshire Community College.
She got a job at the Boys and Girls Club but knew if she wanted to further her career she needed to get a bachelor's degree.
"Fourteen years went by and I knew I had to go back to school, I was a single mom essentially, I was juggling two, sometimes three jobs, my son was involved in sports. There was just no way possible I could fit school into my schedule," Thompson said.
"Or so I thought."
She then got in touch with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which had recently launched a cohort program for early childhood education. There a group of students took classes together, one night a week, spanning slightly over two years to finish their degrees. Now, she's moving up in her career path.
"They really, truly supported us," Thompson said. "We wouldn't be who we are today if it weren't for a program like this."
The two colleges want to replicate that success story. On Wednesday, MCLA President James Birge and BCC President Ellen Kennedy signed an articulation agreement to make a seamless transition from BCC's associate program to MCLA's bachelors.
"By going to class one night a week, these adult learners are able to balance their full-time employment, sometimes part-time jobs added onto that, their family demands, along with their studies," MCLA's Director of Graduate and Continuing Education Barbara Emanuel said.
The program will run out of the Conte Federal Building in Pittsfield, where the two colleges already have a presence. The focus is on getting adult learners in the early education field more education to deepen their impact.
"It targets possibly the most important work that any community commits to - that is the care and development of its youngest residents, our early learners," MCLA Dean of Graduate and Continuing Education Howard "Jake" Eberwein said.
The push for early childhood education has been growing both locally and nationally. The statistics behind the push show that quality early childhood education paves the way for a more successful student. The Pittsfield Promise through the Berkshire United Way and the Berkshire Compact for Education have both placed an emphasis on improving early childhood care.
"I have seen the transformation of students. People come in very unsure of themselves, not really knowing what they are getting themselves into. They walked through our doors, in the case of early childhood community, we often think of them as early childhood care workers. But they truly are early childhood educators and they walk out of our doors as leaders in our communities," Emanuel said.
MCLA has graduated 42 students through its cohort program and BCC followed suit by developing its own. Patricia Kay, assistant professor of childhood education at BCC, said the cohort program was designed to help people currently working into the field broaden their expertise.
"We know our youngest learners need people with expertise in the area," Kay said.
Many from BCC's cohort program went on to go through MCLA's program, so the natural progression would be to combine those efforts.
Birge and Kennedy signed the agreement on Wednesday.
"This articulation will mean a smooth transition for students who graduate from BCC to MCLA. It will let them bring with them all of the credits they earned at BCC and they will seamlessly be able to obtain their bachelor's degree," Kay said. "This is what we are all working for. We are all working together."
The two colleges have signed numerous articulation agreements over the years, with this being the most recent. The agreements help students find a smooth transition into furthering their education once they graduate BCC.
"In an era when colleges and universities compete for students, for faculty, and for funding in a lot of cases, I think MCLA and BCC stand out as icons of partnerships. I think the work we do together, not just in this program though this program is what we are celebrating today, but in lots of different ways we work well together," Birge said.
Eberwein emphasized the importance of collaboration in the Berkshires in helping address needs in the community.
"Our two higher education anchor institutions, MCLA and BCC, are once again leading by example in creating new, impactful programs for our residents which provide seamless opportunities to respond to local need and create affordable, high quality, degree completion programs that empower individuals to advance their education, achieve their personal and professional aspiration, and, most importantly, position each to have a positive and lasting impact in our region," Eberwein said.
And while all of that is important to Kennedy, what is most important for her are the stories like Thompson's.
"Their individual stories is what is really exciting," Kennedy said.
The BCC president added that MCLA, founded as a teacher training college, has had a long history in education and that she is glad to be working alongside such an institution.
"Education is near and dear to all of our hearts. That was really the Normal School, North Adams Normal School, so much of its history was primarily focused on education," Kennedy said.
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