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Building Early Learning Latine Educators (BELLE)

Developing a Pipeline of Latine Early Childhood Leaders in New Jersey, A Unique New Model

On a cold day in February 1982, a new mom hesitantly dropped her three-month old baby off at the home of a child care provider who had been recommended to her by other moms in the community. Though the provider was otherwise unknown to the mom, they had language and culture in common and this was better than nothing for the new mom. Over the years, this family caregiver became a third abuela and also cared for the girl’s younger brother and cousins and attended every family event from communions to college graduations and weddings. She even referred to the girl as “su nieta postiza” [her fake granddaughter].


I am the baby in this story and this family childcare contributed to defining my Latina identity in significant ways across the years. I was well cared for but was also able to keep and develop my home language and culture even through my elementary years. My cultural experiences with her included lots of conversations in Spanish, having lunches like black bean soup, Cuban bread, and mangoes, hearing stories about Cuba, and the interactions of an extended family that all felt like home. In retrospect, this childcare provider was also the one and only Latine Spanish-speaking educator I would have through grade 12. In school, no attempt was made to understand or draw on my language and culture, the way they were for me during those formative years of my life. They were instead something I “did” at home and never someone I am.


Though this story is 40 years old, many children have the same experience today. Most specifically, the patterns of Latine representation in the early childhood education workforce remain similar, if not the same. Currently, 94% percent of the workforce are women and about 24% are Latine though as you climb the elementary school ladder, there is less and less Latine representation, with only about 13% of K-12 teachers and 8% of K-12 administrators identifying as Latine. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it does not reflect the population of Spanish speaking dual language learners (DLLs), who account for about 32% of children under age five. Second, there are advantages to linguistic and cultural matches in the classroom including supporting bilingual acquisition that simply cannot occur without Latine educators in these spaces. Representation matters on its own, so does the training and knowledge that these educators possess which can make them stronger advocates for policies and practices that benefit Spanish-speaking DLLs. Third, absence from leadership has long-term earning implications for Latines in the system.


In response to this problem, this year, NIEER rolled out Building Early Learning Latine Educators (BELLE), a leadership academy aimed at establishing a pipeline of early childhood education leaders who identify as Latine, speak Spanish, and have teaching experience. In its pilot cohort (2022), BELLE partnered with seven EC educators and their leaders towards better understanding policies and practices needed for supporting DLLs and their families. Through in-person and virtual workshops, the BELLE cohort learned about effective leadership building on their Latine cultures as well as understanding research-based teaching practices using a reflective coaching tool (the Self-Evaluation of Supports for Emergent Bilingual Acquisition; SESEBA). As BELLE participants engage as a cohort, the program inherently provides mentors and creates a professional network, broadening both what participants know and can do, and who they know who can provide mutual support. Most unique to the model is BELLE’s emphasis on Latine cultural assets that are key for their leadership.


Subsequent to the first cohort’s participation, four out of seven teachers have already moved on to new leadership positions, and the other three are pursuing credentials needed to seek such positions. One school district has also begun a district-wide effort to train all of their teachers on the SESEBA to systematically improve preschool DLL supports. This effort is significant given that research shows the lack of state policies relative to DLLs. This lack of state policies is reflected in few comprehensive local policies to support DLL strategies.


This school year, BELLE is partnering with a new cohort of eleven dyads of Latine EC educators and their leaders. This cohort will include an even wider geographic area to add to our network and further build capacity across New Jersey to advance the knowledge and systems needed to better serve DLLs.


Though this is just a first step, we know the need for DLL strategies and policies is crucial in New Jersey and nationally. In a moment where we are learning how important representation is, and why it matters, BELLE is a timely opportunity for teachers, children, and families. Seeing leaders who look like us in and out of the classroom will surely inspire and empower Latine educators to better advocate for the practices and environments that we know all children need now more than ever.

The Authors

Dr. Figueras-Daniel was awarded a Young Scholars Program grant from the Foundation for Child Development to investigate coaching and professional development of Latina preschool teachers working with DLLs. At NIEER, she leads this study as well a project to develop a Latina leadership pipeline in ECE.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.