Cici Cantero has worked for the Early Learning Coalition of Polk County for seven years and recently received a promotion due in part to the knowledge she has gained in Polk State College’s Early Childhood Education Program.
The promotion to screening specialist brings Cantero’s journey full circle as she visits daycares to ensure compliance with Department of Children and Families requirements and connects families with quality early childhood education and child care options. Cantero recalls her time as a teen mom when services like those provided by the Early Learning Coalition would have been helpful to her and her daughters.
“I was pregnant at 15 and 17. The three of us moved to Florida to get away from a bad situation. I got my first job at a call center and was paying my neighbor $100 a week to take care of my children. Being 19 and on my own without a support system, I didn’t think anything of it; I didn’t have a choice; I just needed child care so that I could work and provide for my daughters,” Cantero explained.
“I didn’t know anything about DCF inspections or childcare credentials,” she added. “I realize now the importance of these services. I’m forever thankful to my neighbor who cared greatly for my children, but I know that’s not the case for everyone. I am motivated to connect families to quality resources for their children.”
The ELC is a non-profit focused on early education and child care, providing free child care resources and referrals to families seeking quality and affordable care options. Cantero was connected to the ELC by a friend who was working with the Coalition at the time. She was hired as a family service specialist, working with families to determine their eligibility for benefits including child care vouchers and voluntary prekindergarten (VPK).
“Before I started working at the ELC, I knew nothing about the importance of early childhood education – how much of a difference it makes for a child,” she shared. “We help families connect to community resources; not only child care but all types of assistance. It can be food, rent, medical – there are a lot of things families need to provide what’s best for their children.”
“There’s a great support system at Polk State. Going through the Early Childhood Education Program, I have learned that early childhood education has a big impact on who that child later becomes. You want them to be successful adults; you want them to break through any adversity or barriers.”
Cantero quickly developed a passion for helping children and discovered the opportunity to move into more specialized positions with certain credentials and education. Cantero was most interested in working more directly with children, and the screening specialist position seemed like a good fit. It requires an Associate in Science in Early Childhood Education and Management.
Cantero enrolled at Polk State because it was the local, affordable option. Polk State is the only public post-secondary institution in Polk County offering state-approved teacher education preparation programs. She has since discovered a variety of additional benefits at the College, including the collegiate high school program her daughter recently graduated from.
“There’s a great support system at Polk State,” Cantero said. “Going through the Early Childhood Education Program, I have learned that early childhood education has a big impact on who that child later becomes. You want them to be successful adults; you want them to break through any adversity or barriers.”
The Associate in Science in Early Childhood Education and Management Program allows students to earn two Polk State professional certificates and satisfy eligibility requirements to apply for two State of Florida credentials. The program curriculum focuses on providing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to deliver safe, healthy, and developmentally appropriate education for infants to preschool-age children.
Cantero is in her last class and internship at Kiddie Corner, a preschool in Winter Haven. In addition to the support she has received at Polk State, she noted that of her employer as well, including her ability to take time off work in the mornings Tuesdays through Thursdays to participate in her internship. Grouped with the flexibility of online classes and assistance from her professors, Cantero has continued to work full-time while pursuing her degree.
“Polk State has been amazing, especially when it comes to the teachers in the Early Childhood Program,” she said. “The professors are willing to give you that extra hand. They understand when life happens. They work with you. They want you to succeed.”
“I’m also grateful that my job for allowing me the opportunity to participate in this training,” Cantero added. “They believe education is important and that has benefited me.”
She will graduate in December and plans to take a semester off before enrolling in the Polk State Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education Program.
“I want to be the best I can be,” Cantero said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to better myself professionally and as a person.”