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Scholarship winners dive deeper into teaching high-need children

Robin Chenoweth
December 05, 2016

Pipeline scholarship makes degree possible for early childhood educators

By day, he’s Mr. Ed, bomb-diggity pre-kindergarten teacher. By evening, he’s Ed Thomas, child and youth studies major in Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology. And because he’s the recipient of the Early Childhood Education Professional Preparation Pipeline Scholarship — a free bachelor’s degree for practitioners who’ve already earned associate’s degrees — he’s an investigator on the front lines of early childhood education.

Today, Mr. Ed is testing a method for getting active student response, a concept he learned in his Exceptional Children class. A chart with letters hangs from the wall of his classroom in Fairwood Elementary on Columbus’s east side, squarely inside the fourth-poorest zip code in the county. (The preschool program is run by the YMCA of Central Ohio.)

Thomas chants, “1, 2, 3,” then points to a letter. The four-year-olds encircling him shout “B!” He calls, “1, 2, 3,” points again, and the kids exclaim, “D!”

But the lesson really gets rocking when Thomas snaps his fingers or claps his hands three times. In unison, the eight youngsters begin to “dab,” the dance popularized by football star Cam Newton and played out in numerous YouTube videos. Everyone’s boogying, and clearly, these students are loving letter-learning. Thomas’s training has hit its mark.

“We do this several times a day. At the very least, the snap (or clap) develops phonological awareness because they’re listening for it,” Thomas said. “Without even knowing it, they’re taking something away.”

Getting those early learning concepts to play out in urban preschools is precisely why the scholarship was created, said Deb Zurmehly, program manager of the college’s child and youth studies program. The five-year, $3.9-million program is a partnership between Ohio State, the City of Columbus, Columbus State Community College and Action for Children.

To support the Early Childhood Education Professional Preparation Pipeline Scholarship, please visit the program's giving page.

Helping teachers, helping kids

The program’s benefits are twofold: It helps improve early education quality and school readiness for some of the city’s poorest kids, and teachers who otherwise could not afford a bachelor’s degree get one for free.

The first cohort of 13 students receiving the scholarship have a solid background in child development because they have associate degrees, most of them from Columbus State Community College. All currently work in preschools.

“We’re building on that,” Zurmehly said. “We’re saying, let’s go deeper.”

“The teaching is driven by: What are the children wondering about? What is it they want to explore?” she said. “That leads to in-depth investigations of ideas and concepts that are child driven. It really shifts the way teachers interact in the classroom.”

The approach hinges on the idea that every child has deep curiosity that drives him or her to understand the world. Tap into that inquisitiveness — as Thomas did when his students began pocketing acorns from school grounds — and true learning kicks into full gear.

“Because they were interested in acorns, it was very easy to incorporate different learning areas,” he said, such as counting and sorting nuts to understand math concepts.

Later, when acorn weevils began emerging, a captivating science lesson unfolded. “This sparked enormous interest,” Thomas said. “As we investigated what the bugs were, I was able to learn beside them.”

Students in the cohort immediately can bring the lessons they’ve learned at Ohio State to bear in their classrooms.

“While I’m taking notes in my education classes I’m also thinking about how I could incorporate what the professor is talking about into our weekly activities,” said Sarah McGurk, an assistant teacher for children up to 20 months in Nationwide Children’s Hospital Child Care Center.

“My Exceptional Child class is an intro to special education, and I’m learning so many techniques that I find not only work with children with disabilities but with all children, especially very young children like the ones I work with,” she said.

The cohort for the 2016 Early Childhood Education Professional Preparation Pipeline includes (from left): Sarah McGurk, Kimberly Lynn, Ed Thomas, Cynthia Nelson, Deidre White, Christy Davis, Tamara Lewis, EHE Dean Cheryl Achterberg, Natasha Hall, Peggy Lafayette, Merritt Thompson, Amber Fridley, Tiffany Williams and Jennifer VanDyne.

Leveling the education field

Such lessons are critical to reducing achievement gaps for the city’s poorest children, said Bryan Warnick, EHE’s associate dean of curriculum.  In fact, research shows that early interactions don't just create a context for development and learning, they directly affect the way childrens' brains are wired.

“It’s that early, early childhood education, before they come to school, that is so desperately needed,” he said.

The students’ Urban Teaching and Learning class has empowered scholarship recipients to tackle poverty issues they daily encounter.

“I work in the very same environment that we talk about in class,” Thomas said. “I can change the names in the articles we read to the names of children and families I work with.”

At 27, he’s older than most of his students’ parents, who often have several children and few good employment prospects. One family was homeless, and kids sometimes come to school hungry.

“I can’t imagine surviving and needing to do what they need to do,” he said. “You have to help children but you have to address the adults who are in their lives. It’s a whole-family approach.”

The urban education class fosters deep consideration of the effects of poverty on young children.

“It’s an honest discussion every time we are in class. It’s, ‘What did you do today that has something to do with what we just read?’” Thomas said. “It goes well beyond your textbook learning . . . it’s giving me the knowledge that it takes a community to enhance the classroom but also to push for education reform.”

A lifeline for early education teachers

And because the average Ohio early childhood teacher makes only $11.39 per hour, many with children themselves fall below the 138% federal poverty threshold, qualifying them for government support such as Medicaid. (Ohio preschool teachers make less than their peers in 48 other states.)

One aim of the scholarship, said Warnick, is to increase teachers’ earning power, thereby increasing the stability of the profession.

“One way to help the kids is to give them teachers with stable jobs that give them a reason to stick around and use the experience they have accumulated,” he said.

For both McGurk and Natasha Hall, the scholarship was a lifeline and the only chance to obtain their degrees. McGurk worked multiple jobs and 60 hours each week to get her associate’s degree. She drained her savings working toward her bachelor’s.

“I babysat every weekend to save up for classes, but even so I was only able to save enough for a class or two,” she said.

For Hall, a single mom with two children and substantial student debt, taking on more loans was not an option. “I tried everything I possibly could think of. This scholarship was basically it,” she said. She was so sure she wouldn’t get it, she told no one except coworkers she had applied.

When awarded the scholarship, both women reacted the same way. McGurk sat in her car, cell phone in hand, crying tears of joy; Hall was overwhelmed.

“When I got the email I literally lay in bed and cried before I called and told my mom I had gotten it,” Hall said.

Want to apply? Here are the details

The five-year, $3.9-million Early Childhood Education Professional Preparation Pipeline program is a partnership between Ohio State, the City of Columbus, Columbus State Community College and Action for Children. Applications for the 2017 scholarship cohort open Jan. 15. The deadline to apply is March 17 at 5 p.m.

The scholarship will pay full-tuition and fees for a Bachelor of Science in Education degree in Child and Youth Studies (non-licensure) or a BSEd in Early Childhood Education with a prekindergarten through third-grade teaching license. Up to 20 students will be selected.

Minimum requirements include:

  • An associate's degree from an accredited community college
  • Current or future employment in early childhood education
  • Established Ohio residency
  • A commitment to working in a Columbus-area early-childhood setting for three years after graduation

See more details on applying.


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