Helios Provides Major Support to UAs College of Education Early Childhood Education Teacher Preparatory Program

Posted on: June 2, 2011

A new Helios Education Foundation and University of Arizona collaboration will fundamentally shift the way early childhood educators learn about their students, adding a stronger emphasis on early literacy and language acquisition, and also community-based education.

Helios, a philanthropic organization serving education communities in Arizona and Florida, is funding the UA College of Education at $1.5 million for four years under a new partnership: CREATE, Communities as Resources in Early Childhood Teacher Education.

Pictured from left to right: University of Arizona College of Education Dean Ron Marx, University of Arizona College of Education Associate Dean Renee Clift, Founding Chairman of Helios Education Foundation Vince Roig and Helios Education Foundation President & CEO Paul Luna.

"A quality early childhood education is a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to preparing students to be successful across the education continuum," said Helios Education Foundation's Chairman Vince Roig.

"And, we know that putting effective and skilled teachers in early learning classrooms contributes to a high quality learning environment for students," Roig said, adding that "we are excited to be a part of this initiative."

Among the concerns driving the initiative are that educators are too often divorced from their students' communities and that the assets and resources families can bring to the classroom are often unknown or ignored.

CREATE will work to address and take on those challenges while also engaging teachers in its partner districts - Flowing Wells, Sunnyside and Tucson unified school districts. Other districts and private partners also will be involved.

The initiative is designed also to spark new partnerships between birth-to-K-3 centers and better engage families and communities toward improving the literacy and language learning of southern Arizona youth.

The partnership also promotes educators' understanding of the cultural knowledge and skills, or "funds of knowledge," within diverse cultural communities, determining ways to capture familial knowledge in the classroom setting.

"What we're trying to do is to really support teachers so that they may create spaces where they can build collaborations between children, families and key community stakeholders," said Iliana Reyes, a UA associate professor of teaching, learning and sociocultural studies.

"Too often, we are thinking about what we need to do in the classroom and teachers don't have the opportunity to make those spaces and create those relationships," Reyes added.

"But we have taken the literature and applied it here to improve academic and life success," she added. "We also want to make sure that we are hearing and learning the stories from children."

This is why storytelling through literacy is so central to CREATE.

"For young children, literacy comes through oral storytelling, then the written," Reyes said. "It is very important for children to be able to experience stories that are meaningful to them and their cultural and personal experience."

Other key features of the re-envisioned program include helping children to develop a deeper understanding of themselves and others, involving families and local organizations in childhood literacy education and helping teachers develop a greater awareness of the historical and cultural contexts of those communities.

Also, UA students spend their first semester taking courses on UA's main campus, but the rest of their instruction and field experience is spent in the communities they serve.

"In the earlier version of the program, it wasn't enough time for our students to be effective," said Donna Jurich, UA's director of elementary and early childhood education.

Jurich also said the new program allows for a more reflective and integrated experience for early childhood educators, allowing them to more readily see the connection between their coursework and the classroom.

"Hopefully, this will increase the kind of relationships we hope they will have with the teachers, the students and their families," said Jurich, also a professor of practice in the teaching, learning and sociocultural studies department.

Those involved in CREATE said connecting the dots between how classroom curriculum and practices and community-based education could improve teacher performance is urgent.

"A lot of times, the students are stuck in the middle, so to speak," said Chris Iddings, a UA associate professor of teaching, learning and sociocultural studies.

"They are given a set of experiences but when they go out into the field, they do not see the practices that have stimulated their thinking," she said.

Iddings also said that, through CREATE, students will experience a "complete connection" between what they are studying and what they witness in the classroom.

Also through the partnership, early childhood education resources will be more accessible and readily available through real and virtual community centers, including a CREATE website and enhanced Worlds of Words website.

"In most cases, what you see with early childhood education is that people take elementary education and just change the focus to young children instead of designing courses specific to early childhood contexts," said Kathy Short, a UA language, reading and culture professor who also directs the Worlds of Words collection.

What CREATE is doing is providing a more unified program with a greater emphasis not only on classroom instruction, but family and community-based involvement.
"It's family, community and classroom. Those three are coming together with a much different sense of being in a partnership," Short said, adding that family visits will be a core responsibility for students and teachers who will then be responsible for weaving family histories and stories into the classroom.

Helios will continue to provide its expertise and strategic guidance during the duration of the initiative, which is expected to develop into a model that can be replicated across the country.

Also, UA College of Education faculty members have already begun redesigning the curriculum - building upon the collective knowledge and ideas of teachers, community liaisons, families, local school districts and others, said Renee Clift, the UA College of Education's associate dean for professional preparation.

UA faculty will evaluate the initiative throughout its duration, making changes when necessary.

"This effort is well supported in the college and in the department," Jurich also said. "And it is addressing some of the important directions teacher education is beginning to take and where the community-based focus is taking."

Category: Early Grade Success

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