WORDS: Carlee Colonneso
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
Speak to Dr. Kristina DeWitt of SCF’s Education Department, and you will immediately recognize the commitment she has to helping those in Early Education. Whether mentoring aspiring teachers in the classroom, volunteering to promote literacy, or reaching out to the community, Dr. DeWitt’s love of learning is positively impacting Manatee County.
Her Journey into Education
Long before Dr. DeWitt started working in education, she always looked for ways to help children. She explained: “Coming from the business world, anytime there was an opportunity to work with the kids, I volunteered.” This natural gravitation stemmed from an influence from her grandmother, who was a third-grade teacher, and the fond memories of when she visited her classroom as a child.
Fast forward to living in Northern Virginia and now married to a teacher, Dr. DeWitt’s plan after the birth of her son was to send him to daycare and continue to work. However, she soon realized that her two-year-old needed a different environment. She began researching the Early Education curriculum as well as programs and, armed with a business degree, started her own in-home early learning center called the Teddy Bear Clubhouse. While running the state-approved center, Dr. DeWitt found that she was caring for the children of teachers who were also looking for that same type of structure.
This concept of educating young children then bloomed into her wanting to mentor others entering the teaching profession. She then went back to school, first obtaining her bachelor’s degree, then a master’s with the goal to teach at the university and college levels.
A Desire to Help Others
After obtaining her Ph.D. from George Mason University, she worked for a season in public education. She then began teaching preparation and literacy courses at Liberty University, one of the world’s largest Christian universities. During her employment there, she also worked abroad in Jamaica with the Ministry of Education.
Over eight years, she brought approximately 150 students along for a week of field experience to the middle of the island referred to as the Dry Country, a section away from the resorts and tourist spots. As Dr. DeWitt and her students taught alongside the elementary and high school teachers in the area, she explained: “We traveled light with our personal belongings so we could take supplies and books. On our last trip, we took around 1600 books in about 30 suitcases”. After this experience, four of her students decided to travel back to Jamaica to do their student teaching.
Amid the Pandemic, Dr. DeWitt decided it was time for a change and switched from a private university setting to public. In October 2020, she began her work for the State College of Florida (SCF) and has continued to help future educators. Now, as the Chair of the newly formed Education Department, she elaborated on what a large part of her job is saying: “I believe that teaching is a calling and a passion, and teachers need to have mentors such as myself to be able to stand in the gap with them…to help them with the challenges.”
The Gift of Literacy
Dr. DeWitt describes herself as a worker bee, so it isn’t surprising to also find her volunteering in the community. Through a partnership with SCF and the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County, she is helping to distribute books to promote literacy throughout the Manatee County School District via Soar in 4 programs. Her motto is to “Make Reading Fun,” so she also creates easy and affordable activities for families to accompany these books at the events.
Her idea is to present these books as gifts of literacy to encourage families to read together. According to the Manatee County School’s website, Soar in 4 is a monthly movement created to ensure that all early learners and their families have the opportunities and support they need for success in preschool, school, and beyond.
As a board member at both Sarasota’s and Manatee’s Early Learning Coalition’s, she continues to distribute books through community outreach to local Early Learning Centers and in-home centers. Dr. DeWitt shared a recent experience when she was in Sarasota delivering gifts and books. “One of the individuals I visited had a home-based education center for 35 years. I spoke to her about the difficulties of Covid, asked about her center’s families; I was glad to be able to do that outreach and provide her with encouragement, ” she said.
Early Education at SCF
Speaking of challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new problems regarding early childhood education in Manatee County. There is currently a waitlist in facilities for young children due to an inability to hire enough childcare workers. This balance in the ratio of teachers to children is vital for students’ academic success and for parents to reenter the workforce.
SCF currently provides two-degree paths to education, and both are virtual options. According to the website, an Early Childhood Education Associates of Science (AS) degree prepares students for immediate employment as a child development center teacher or manager, early intervention associate, child development curriculum coordinator, infant/toddler teacher, or preschool teacher. In addition, the Bachelor of Science (BS) in Early Education program fulfills the legal requirements implemented for Head Start teachers and directors, as well as teachers in Florida Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten programs.
Once online courses are completed, whether AS or BS, students are required to participate in a 15-week internship to earn 480 hours of fieldwork towards their degree. Dr. DeWitt explained that one of the favorite parts of working with future teachers is. She said: “I get to share my love of learning with everybody.” This semester she has 20 interns and will continue to head out in the field to observe educators in the classroom, meet with them in person, or hold virtual sessions to check in on their progress. As the Department Chair of Education Programs at SCF, Dr. DeWitt’s role is to prepare early educators so facilities can hire locals. Through her commitment and love of learning, these individuals will be ready.
- You can learn more about the Early Education programs at SCF by visiting scf.edu and searching “Early Education.”