By Ginny Wray
Savanna Gwynn always dreamed of being a teacher, but life kept getting in the way. There were bills to pay, children to raise and so on.
But now, thanks to various programs and resources, she sees a clear path to the career of her dreams.
Gwynn, of Ridgeway, graduated from Patrick Henry Community College on May 11 with an associate degree in early childhood education. She has begun working toward her bachelor’s of individual study degree with a concentration in early childhood education at James Madison University (JMU). That degree comes with a license to teach prekindergarten through third grade.
At age 33, she also is a full-time mother, full-time employee and full-time student. And she had a 4.0 grade point average at PHCC.
“It was very hard but challenging. … It’s amazing that I have pushed myself to do this because I have the drive to be in the school system and make a difference,” she said.
She also had help, from programs at PHCC to the Davenport Institute for Early Childhood Development and other resources that enabled her to attend college for free.
Gwynn is the daughter of Mike and Bonnie Sirt of Ridgeway. She graduated from Magna Vista High School in 2004 and went to Liberty University in Lynchburg but came home after half a semester. “Big town, small-town girl,” she said, explaining her homesickness.
Gwynn enrolled in PHCC’s education department but quit when she needed money. She was working in retail stores in North Carolina when she learned that the Collinsville YMCA had an opening for an aide in the after-school program at Ridgeway Elementary School.
Armed with a passion for working with children but no experience, she got the job.
It was perfect. “I knew I needed to go back to school but I didn’t have the desire or drive that I needed because I was doing what I loved, “ she said.
That was in 2007. Six months later the YMCA sent her to its Richmond program to become qualified as a director for the after-school program, and now she is the licensing and school-aged program director for the local YMCAs, in charge of the after school-programs as well as the Y’s summer camp program. She also has other responsibilities, all of which focus on child care.
During the years in between, Gwynn had two children — Delaina Gwynn, now 5, and Brodie Gwynn, now 2. She worked part-time until 2013 when she got a chance to move into a full-time job. “It was hard to work part-time and go to school,” let alone work full-time, she said.
Then Dr. Kristin Dulaney, associate professor of education and early childhood at PHCC, came to the YMCA and introduced the staff to the Davenport Institute program. Gwynn’s world opened up and the largest obstacle to her dream — paying for higher education — was removed.
The Davenport Institute for Early Childhood Development was created to improve the skills of child care workers in Virginia. It provides scholarships, coaching and mentoring to incumbent child-care workers pursuing career studies certificates at participating Virginia Community Colleges, including PHCC, according to online information.
Gwynn said Ben and Betty Davenport, armed with the knowledge that the years between birth and age 5 are critically important to a child’s development, funded the institute.
“If they didn’t cover us, they guided us” to other resources that would, Gwynn said of herself and the five other YMCA employees in the Davenport program. Those resources included the Virginia Early Childhood Education Foundation’s Pathfinders program and the Virginia Department of Social Services, which help pay for some early childhood education classes.
The Davenport program also provided incentives to keep students pursuing additional certificates that stack up to build credentials. As a result, Gwynn has earned two certificates and an associate degree.
Gwynn also was named a Davenport fellow, one of three in the state chosen from among the early childhood education students who took part in the initial Davenport program. Fellows receive all costs of tuition, books, supplies and other expenses for their second year in the early childhood education program; attend conferences and training programs; and perform 20 hours of community service a year.
Kim P. Gregory, director of the Davenport Institute at PHCC, said the fellows attended an event in Richmond last July and a leadership event in February where they went to a session of the General Assembly, were introduced in the Senate chambers, met a legislator and attended a reception.
“Savanna is high energy. She represented us very well,” Gregory said. “She is truly serving as an ambassador for the (Davenport) program and early childhood education professionals.”
Dulaney added that the purpose of the fellows is to “create leaders in the field who advocate for early childhood education.”
She noted that Gwynn has grown in confidence and commitment as a result of her training and experiences.
“When I first met her, she was (saying), ‘I don’t know if I can come back.’ She had taken classes and not done so well,” Dulaney said. But when she saw her recently, Gwynn was emphatic that she had to do well in a biology class to keep her 4.0 GPA, Dulaney added.
“Seeing that growth in her I know she’s a really good person to be in the leadership program. … I have no doubt she’ll be amazing and be a wonderful teacher,” Dulaney added.
Gwynn also is taking advantage of the 2 plus 2 program. Dulaney explained that in the past, four-year colleges and universities did not accept transfers of early childhood education credits from community colleges toward bachelor’s degrees. After 2 1/2 years of working to tweak the program, that is changing and JMU will accept the credits, Dulaney said.
The two-year JMU program is entirely online, which is a blessing for Gwynn. If she had to move to attend college, she would have to leave her job at the YMCA and family members who help care for her children when she is working or at school.
After earning her degree and license, she hopes to teach in an area school system.
“I want to be the one (teacher) they remember,” she said. “I want to get wedding invitations” from former students who remember her.
Gwynn credits Dulaney and the programs through PHCC for her success, as well as the YMCA for encouraging and helping her and her coworkers. In return, “it looks good on them to have high quality child care,” she said the YMCA.
If Gwynn had not been exposed to any of that, “I probably still would be here at the Y trying to make an impact where I could … and enjoying life as much as I could but still longing to be in the classroom. Without an education, what if the Y closed? There would be no other opportunity.
“I really want to better myself. This is an amazing job but I want to be able to tell my kids ‘I did this. You can, too’,” she said.
And she has advice for others who are struggling.
“Just know anything is possible. You have to reach down and try and get that support. Try to stay positive even if you have bad days,” she said, adding that with work, school and motherhood, “stress gets to you. There’s not a lot of time for yourself, but it’s possible” to succeed.