Tyonna Stinnie, left, is in training Thursday for a certification in child care at the Spanish Education Development (SED) Center in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of child-care workers in the District are heading back to school to meet new education requirements that are among the highest in the nation.

Meanwhile, 17-year old Tyonna Stinnie, an aspiring early childhood teacher, graduated from Capital City Public Charter School in June with a head start.

Along with her diploma, she earned a Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate, considered a baseline credential in the field and one many child-care workers lack.

She took part in a new city-funded career and technical education program called “First Step” that aims to build a pipeline of highly trained workers who can help transform the quality of care and education for the District’s youngest learners.

“We have an opportunity unlike any other place in the country,” D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang said.

Children return to the Spanish Education Development Center in Washington Thursday after a trip outside. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

While most states and cities are focusing scarce early education resources on expanding access to public prekindergarten programs, she said, the District has a public preschool program available to all 3- and 4-year-olds and is now looking to invest in quality programs for infants and toddlers.

A central part of that mission is improving the skills of child-care workers, many of whom are paid minimum wage and have little more than a high school degree. Researchers say the job of teaching children under age 3 — a time when their brains are developing rapidly — requires training similar to what elementary school teachers receive.

New licensing regulations that went into effect in December call for teachers of infants and toddlers to have an Associate degree by December 2020.

The regulations also require child-care center directors to earn a bachelor’s degree and home care providers and assistant teachers to earn a CDA.

These minimum credentials are stoking anxiety among child-care workers who say they lack time and resources to go back to school. Some Spanish-speaking providers say they will have to spend extra years learning English before they can even enroll in college-level courses.

Many business owners are also concerned they cannot afford to reward better-educated teachers: The under-resourced system is already strained with some of the highest average tuition in the country, at $1,800 a month, allowing little room for increases to pay teachers more. At the same time, government vouchers for low-income families do not fully reimburse for the actual cost of quality care, providers say.

Kang said officials are listening. “We believe it’s absolutely critical to support our child-care workforce,” she said.

The city recently launched an online platform called Quorum where child-care workers can complete their CDA course work free. It added new funding for scholarships to help child-care workers pursue college degrees, increasing the sum from $916,840 to $1.5 million.

The current year’s budget added $4.5 million to increase the value of child-care vouchers.

City officials are also talking with universities about the possibility of offering a degree program in Spanish, Kang said. The law includes a waiver provision for people who have taught in a licensed child development center for at least 10 years.

Martha C. Egas, executive director at the Spanish Education Development (SED) Center in Petworth, said it’s challenging to meet the new education standards, but worthwhile. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for workers to improve their skills and take advantage of what the city is offering at the moment.”

The First Step program, which just graduated its first seven students in June, aims to increase the skill level and education of workers now entering the field. It is projected to expand into new schools and enroll 150 students over the next three years.

To earn a CDA, students must take 120 hours of course work in child development and spend 480 hours working with children. To help students earn their hours, the city is paying them to work in licensed child-care centers through its Summer Youth Employment Program.

“I knew I wanted to work with children. So when I heard about this program, I said, ‘Sign me up,’ ” Stinnie said. She is working in a class for 2-year-olds this summer at the SED Center before enrolling at Trinity Washington University, where she plans to study early-childhood education and eventually earn a master’s degree. Some of her high school credits through the CDA program can transfer to her new university, and she hopes to take advantage of the District’s scholarships for child-care workers.

Eben Benavides, 17, another First Step graduate, is also working at the SED Center this summer. He was eating lunch on a recent afternoon at a small table of 2- and 3- year olds.

He said he enrolled in the program because he wanted to “learn how children learn.”

As a rare male in an overwhelmingly female-dominated workforce, he says he hopes to be a role model for children. “I can let them know that there are males figures they can depend on in their lives,” he said.

Valora Washington, chief executive at the Council for Professional Recognition, which oversees the CDA program nationally, said high school-level training programs are beginning to take root around the country. The programs provide professional skills and college credits to high school graduates, and they benefit young children who too often spend formative years in programs with low-skilled workers.

“In many places, a person with no specialized training or educational background can walk into an early-childhood education program and become employed,” she said.