Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/glendale/articles/1115stepping1115Z2.html

A Stepping Stone adds scholarships
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 15, 2003
Monica Mendoza

The students were about 3 feet taller than the typical central Phoenix preschool pupils.

Standing there in the room built for little people - small chairs, blocks, games everywhere - smiles came over the faces of the three high school seniors.

They remembered.

It was 1990. They were 4 years old. In that room, they played, sang and learned to follow instructions. All of them were learning English.

They were the first children enrolled in a preschool class sponsored by A Stepping Stone Foundation. The foundation was formed to raise money for a preschool program in the Isaac School District in Phoenix, where many parents are poor and many children cannot speak English.

The idea was to get the children ready for kindergarten so they could start on par with their classmates. Thirteen years later, four of the 20 students from the inaugural preschool class have won college scholarships from the same foundation that got them started.

All four students report "B" or better grades in high school and are making plans to get higher education. The foundation hopes to find more of that first group.

"They all have big dreams," said the Rev. Bill Smith, founder of the foundation. Smith started the foundation after calling a dinner meeting of the members of Shadow Rock Congregational Church in Phoenix. He had experience with other preschools and knew their value, he said. He told the congregation about his idea of preschool and passed a hat. That night he collected $15,000.

"Kids are not at risk because they are poor," Smith said. "A kid is at risk when he or she has no dreams, no sense that he or she can get anyplace."

Early childhood education now is the talk of political and business circles around the Valley and Gov. Janet Napolitano is expected to announce her ideas on early childhood education in January. Smith and others say when they talk to high school seniors about their college plans, they know getting help early on makes a difference.

Carl Hayden senior Maritza Hernandez, 17, one of the scholarship recipients, remembers playing with blocks and balls in preschool. She remembers the teacher reading to the class. And Play-Doh was her favorite.

"Everything seems so small," she said as she looked around the preschool classroom this month. Preschool teacher Carmen Sanchez, who has been with the program since it started, said children remember the playing. But each game, each area of the classroom was planned to increase fine and large motor skills, to teach language and to teach patterns - all skills the children would need in kindergarten and beyond.

"For many years, I've known good preschool works," Sanchez said as she inquired about the teen's post high school plans. "To get these results, I feel very satisfied."

A Stepping Stone Foundation started with one preschool class in a partnership with one school district - the school provides the classroom and the foundation pays the teacher's salary. Today there are six classes in three Phoenix school districts, Isaac, Murphy and Alhambra. The foundation raises about $360,000 annually to support the classes.

Alhambra school officials say a recent analysis of Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards scores show that children attending one of the district's four preschools, including A Stepping Stone, passed at significantly higher rates (10 percentage points) than children who did not attend a preschool.

Vanessa Tang, 17, a senior at Alhambra High School, has a 4.1 grade-point average and is one of the scholarship recipients. When she started preschool, she could only speak Cantonese, a Chinese dialect.

"After preschool, I learned a lot of English," Tang said, recalling what she could about being 4 years old. "Maybe it was all the singing."

Tuesday, A Stepping Stone Foundation will host a dinner to officially announce the college scholarship program, which has now raised more than $100,000. Phoenix resident Billie Gannaway put up the first $35,000 for the scholarship fund and retired businessman Gary Tooker contributed $40,000 during the past four years.

Getting an out-of-the-blue call from his former preschool about a college scholarship was great news for Albert Hernandez, 17, a senior at Maryvale High School. He has been applying for scholarships as a way to pay for college. He has already taken college courses to get an early start on his degree. Metro Tech High School senior Cindy Siquenza will also receive a scholarship from the foundation.

The foundation hopes to cover tuition and books for the first five recipients. In future years, the scholarship will depend on the money raised and the number who qualify.

"Our goal is that every child from the preschool classes that goes to college will get something," Smith said.