Scholarship program helps Arizona educators raise the bar

Fryssia Silva was stuck.

Helping others was in her makeup. Her uncles were teachers, and Silva wanted to follow suit.

So, in a field increasingly dependent upon achieving degrees, she pursued her associate’s degree in 2017 and 2018, until available dollars went dry.

“I ran out of financial aid, so I was making payments every month, but only $50,” she said. “I was so worried.”

Enter Arizona PBS, selected by First Things First through a competitive grant process to administrate college scholarships that help hundreds of Arizona educators learn more, teach better and improve young children’s lives. In a state that has struggled with funding for education in recent years, this is an opportunity to create positive change for Arizona educators and their students.

Created by Arizona voters in 2006, First Things First works to expand and enhance early childhood education, health and parenting programs that ensure more children arrive at kindergarten prepared to be successful. Arizona PBS receives grant funding from First Things First on a variety of initiatives, both local and statewide; funds used to improve Arizona early childhood education and educators.

One of the many First Things First initiatives fueled by Arizona PBS is the scholarship program, which helps current or aspiring early-childhood and special education teachers such as Silva complete associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

Silva applied and received a scholarship to complete her associate’s degree early in 2019. In August, she plans to begin her bachelor’s degree in early education through the Yuma satellite campus of Northern Arizona University.

Silva is among nearly 900 Arizona educators in the past year to receive a First Things First scholarship to help complete a degree program. Scholarships are available year round to new applicants.
“I feel happy because now I can finish my degree and career, and help others,” she said.

Serina Holmes knows those feelings. An academic advisor at Pima Community College introduced her to Arizona PBS and First Things First. She initially received “nowhere near enough to cover classes and books” in financial aid, but that changed when she applied and received a First Things First scholarship in 2013.

She quickly joined the mentorship program that helps new First Things First scholars succeed. She’s also part of a new organization for students of early childhood education called Somos Enlace (“we are connected” in Spanish). Members help each other navigate the challenges of balancing work and school, connect to resources and find professional development opportunities. Arizona PBS Regional Coordinator Kristine Nishimura serves as a community advisor for the group.

While the scholars work to further their own educations, they’re also helping young children navigate the learning process. Holmes has been an early childhood educator for seven years, the past four at Second Street Children’s School in Tucson. She uses classroom tools such as “Sesame Street” storylines that highlight important social issues for kids and families: food insecurity, homelessness and the impact of military deployment.

“We don’t use a lot of mass-produced materials at our school, but PBS materials are a big resource for us,” Holmes said.

Arizona PBS Regional Coordinators like Nishimura travel to every corner of the state to help educators and schools use PBS KIDS materials and apply for resources like the First Things First scholarship. The nine coordinators have driven a combined 28,000 miles since July 2018 to help educators register in databases to improve teachers’ networking with each other and to share news and ideas across Arizona.

In the past four years, the Arizona PBS Education Outreach team has participated in 4,396 professional development trainings, meetings, and community events across all 15 counties on behalf of Arizona PBS, the Arizona Early Childhood Registry and First Things First College Scholarship Program.

“It’s a great resource and a great impact on young children,” said Alma Barrandey, the director of Arizona Western College’s child development learning lab in Yuma. Barrandey said 15 teachers at Arizona Western College received a scholarship to pursue a degree through First Things First and Arizona PBS.

“It’s been a great impact on the (early childhood) community,” she said. “The numbers have doubled with more people interested in attending school, especially those who can’t qualify for financial aid have few other ways to get an education.”

A few hundred miles north in Cottonwood, Sheri Cross was introduced Arizona PBS Regional Outreach Coordinator Tammy Lee. She introduced Cross to the First Things First scholarship opportunity when Lee was one of Cross’s early education degree teachers.

Cross had realized after a few years of accounting classes, that this wasn’t the right path.
“I have more of a connection with children then I do with numbers,” she said.

With help from First Things First, Cross earned her teaching degree, and has been teaching at the Northern Arizona Council of Governments’ Head Start program for nearly two years.

Lee, who coordinates outreach within Coconino, Gila and Yavapai counties as well as the Hualapai Tribe, said First Things First helped another Head Start teacher from Cameron completed her associate degree and is considering earning a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

Victoria Mendoza is the director of Tiny Tots Daycare Center in Sierra Vista. Six months after Tiny Tots opened in 2009, the center signed up to participate in First Things First services.

“It’s probably one of the best decisions we’ve ever made,” she said.

Since 2012, Mendoza received assistance to finish her associate’s degree, and is currently working on a bachelor’s degree with help from the First Things First Regional Council Funding.

She has five early-childhood educators on staff at Tiny Tots: four are finishing school with help from Arizona PBS and First Things First, and the fifth will begin a degree program this fall.

The school also received a $4,600 contribution to assist in purchasing a central air conditioner and heating system, plus additional yearly grant funds help purchase games, puzzles, math and science materials, and other equipment for the school.

“We jump on every program they offer,” she said. “It’s about getting those kids set for life.”

This story was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Arizona PBS magazine.

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