About Us

The Story of First Things First and 

Great Expectations: Past, Present, and Future

In November 2006, the voters across Arizona approved an 80-cent per pack increase on tobacco products. The money from the tobacco sales funds First Things First. This tax is Arizona’s only source of dollars dedicated to early childhood health and education programs for children from birth up until the age of kindergarten entry.

First Things First dollars provide programs that are strengthening parents’ knowledge and understanding of how young children learn and succeed. Other First Things First programs focus on improving children’s physical, social-emotional, and oral health. Last, but not least, early childhood teacher education, or professional development programs, also are funded by First Things First.

Great Expectations for Teachers, Children, Families, and Communities is made possible by a First Things First early childhood professional development grant that was awarded to United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona (UWTSA) in August 2009. First Things First required that the winning applicant establish at least one Community of Practice, where early childhood teachers could improve their knowledge about the development and learning of children from birth up to 5 years of age. The people taking part in a Community of Practice also could earn college credit that eventually could lead to a degree in early childhood education.

The second requirement was that the main goal of the grant would be to increase the number of early childhood education degrees awarded by Pima Community College. The third charge was to build a new early childhood professional development system.

UWTSA is known in the community for its vision about what might be for the children and families in Tucson. Thus, when the First Things First funding announcement was released in the spring of 2009, United Way brought together six of its community partners to discuss the announcement and possible next steps.  The partners decided that UWTSA should apply and serve as the manager of all activities, if they were awarded the grant. The partners also believed that just creating one Community of Practice would not meet the needs of the community.

The partners then identified key early childhood areas that needed to be strengthened. They agreed upon: raising the quality and availability of infant-toddler care; increasing the number of young children with special needs who could be included in community early childhood programs; improving teachers’ knowledge of Developmentally Appropriate Practice; ensuring timely degree completion in early childhood education at Pima Community College; creating a Master’s Degree program in early childhood education at the University of Arizona’s College of Education; and increasing the number of high quality classrooms available for Tucson’s most vulnerable children.

When the grant was awarded to UWTSA in August 2009, we started with the 6 Communities of Practice, plus United Way, which served as the main office for planning the work and other organizing and completing tasks. United Way was also responsible for bringing nationally recognized early childhood experts to Tucson. We intentionally decided that we would focus on long-term learning, not one time speakers. Thus, we decided to bring speakers for 3 days, twice a year. Each speaker had expertise related to the topics that each Community of Practice was teaching. 

The 6 Communities of Practice began with about 20 members in each one. The members were energized and eager to learn. The Coordinators developed syllabi for the classes, structured each class, and attended monthly in-depth learning and organizing meetings as a group with United Way staff.

After a few months, it was obvious that Tucson’s early childhood teachers wanted to learn. What was not as obvious was the fact that each Community of Practice was hard at work, but we were not yet building a SYSTEM. Thus, we began to weave together the expertise, books, and specialties that each of our national experts brought to the Communities of Practice. We then had the specific topics that each Community of Practice was addressing PLUS we linked all of the Communities of Practice together with the special topics that all Communities of Practice members were learning. These special topics were building the underpinnings of the system, and our adult learners were responding well to the work.

The first 3 years were spent almost completely on building the frameworks for the Communities of Practice and getting a handle on how we best measure our progress. One measure that we still use compares graduation rates at Pima Community College from before the First Things First grant was awarded to UWTSA and going on from that date.

In May 2009, before the grant began, 22 students at Pima community college earned Associates’ Degrees in early childhood education. We have watched the numbers rise every year. In May 2017, 47 degrees were awarded in early childhood education.

Concurrent with Pima College’s work to raise early childhood education degree completion/graduation rates, the University of Arizona’s College of Education was building a Master’s Degree program in early childhood education. The planning and building processes began in September 2009, and the first Master’s Degree class of enrolled in September 2011. From 2011 through 2017, a total of 19 students were awarded Master’s degrees. In 2018, 19 students are currently enrolled in early childhood graduate degree programs. Eleven are in the Master’s program and 8 are in the doctoral program.

In 2012, United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona was awarded a second 3-year early childhood professional development grant. We expanded from 6 Communities of Practice to 10, including the Tohono O’odham Community College. We also renamed our work to reflect the focus on degree completion. Great Expectations for Teachers, Children, and Families captured our work in a more usable way.

In June 2018, United Way of Tucson and its community partners completed the third consecutive early childhood professional development grant from First Things First. When we were funded in 2015, we adapted the title of our grant to reflect the addition of new communities to our work. We are currently known as Great Expectations for Teachers, Children, Families, and Communities. We added 2 Communities of Practice in Cochise County, 1 in the Vail School District, 1 in Green Valley, and 1 in the New Pascua Yaqui Tribal Community. We have 530 members of Communities of Practice studying and learning to be the best early childhood teachers that they can be. Some of these learners have been part of UWTSA’s extended family since 2009 or shortly thereafter.

In June, 2018, First Things First awarded United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona a fourth early childhood professional development grant. As of July 1, 2018, we will have 17 Communities of Practice covering all of Pima County, including the Tohono Community College and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

The Community of Practice model used by Great Expectations has far exceeded the expectations of United Way and our community partners. We have been able to raise the bar for high quality teacher education opportunities and for increasing degree completion rates. 

We are particularly honored that First Things First has supported our ideas and values that have made Great Expectations part of the early childhood professional development culture in Pima County.  First Things first shares our great expectations.

Last, but, by no means, not least, we are honored that so many early childhood classroom teachers, public school principals, Head Start teachers, and family childcare educators have devoted so much time to Great Expectations. Without all of you, we would not be successful. Uncountable hours have been spent learning in our classes, attending Saturday sessions and evening presentations with our national experts, and spending so many hours studying because you, too, believe in the beauty of your dreams – dreams that you have for the children you care for and teach, children that you love in your families, and for the children you have yet to meet.

We would be honored to have you join one of our Communities of Practice. For more information, please contact:

Denice Contreras
Senior Director, Early Childhood Professional Development

Jessica Redondo
Director, Early Childhood Professional Development