Project VOICE proved successful in helping educational aids become teachers

The impact of Fresno Pacific University’s Project VOICE will resound through Valley schools for years to come.

Project VOICE (Valuing Owning Identity through Collaboration and Excellence) increased the number of Spanish- and Hmong-speaking bilingual teachers. Of the 79 people served by the program, 16 have already earned credentials, 21 are in the FPU teacher education program and 42 are in the university’s undergraduate program.

The program recruited teacher’s aids, also known as paraeducators, who wished to become teachers and supported them through monthly seminars, summer language programs and other means. Virginia Cercado is one of those. “I would get together with my peers and find out they were going through the same thing as I was. I was not alone,” she said.

For 18 years, Cercado tutored migrant students, assisted a special education class assistant and acted as liaison between Spanish-speaking parents and students. Since beginning Project VOICE, the Visalia resident has completed her bachelor’s degree and teacher education program and is now working to qualify for a credential.

Financed by a five-year, $172,575 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the program—a partnership between FPU, seven school districts, Fresno City College, Reedley College and the Fresno, Kings and Tulare county offices of education—began in 1998 and will end August 31, 2003. Graduate faculty David and Yvonne Freeman were the first directors. Mary Ann Larsen-Pusey, education faculty, wrote the grant. Jean Fennacy became director after the Freemans left FPU in September of 2002. Henrietta Siemens, project coordinator, and Irma Montemayor, administrative assistant, are the heart of the project, according to Fennacy.

“My role has mostly been to be of support to Henrietta,” Fennacy said. “I really believe the work they have done has been remarkable and clearly there is respect and affection from the students.”

Siemens’ guidance was crucial for Cercado. “I see Henrietta as my guardian angel. She told me how it was,” she said.

For her part, Siemens hands the credit back to the students, pointing out that 43 maintained a grade-point average of 3.0 on a four-point scale, higher than the 2.75 required by the teacher education program. This success was a pleasant surprise considering the challenges many students faced. Participants were required to be full-time students and work part- or full-time. Most were parents and nearly all were between 25 and 40 years old—with a few in their 50s. Some also had to travel a long way to classes and finances were often a factor.

Family and culture could help or hinder. On one hand extended family (parents, grandparents and in-laws) often stepped in to assist the families. But husbands did not always adjust easily to their wives’ student schedules. “I find it interesting that some of the younger women get more support from their families and husbands than the older ones,” Siemens said. “The older women in almost every case were expected to go home and have supper on the table.”

Finding that balance was Cercado’s biggest challenge. “I was trying to have time for family and studying, but the studying would overwhelm me and I would have to spend more time with that,” she said. Sometimes that meant staying in the library and coming home after her three children were in bed, sometimes it meant working to make time at home. Her youngest daughter, now nearly five, is used to sharing mom with a book. “She will say, ‘Do you need to read now mama?’ and close the door and go away,” Mercado said.

Despite the difficulties, retention was good once students got to FPU, Siemens said. The university helped smooth the bumps.  “If students qualified for a Cal Grant we could supplement aid up to full tuition,” she said. “Registrar, financial aid and business office personnel have been very understanding.”

Creating a student support network was a key. “One of the main goals was to help these students discover and use their voice. I think overall it has built self-esteem in our students,” Siemens said. Fennacy agreed. “The sense of community is quite evident.”

Sometimes community meant a taste of tough love. “I wasn’t the only parent who was working full time and taking a full load of courses and I had no right to complain,” Cercado said with a laugh.

Project VOICE succeeded in part because of the kind of place FPU is. “The project is very service oriented. It reflects the university.”