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Early childhood education in Pittsburgh receives another boost with a national award going to two of its champions.

WQED staffers Gina Masciola and Cathy Cook were named the joint recipients of the 2022 Bobbi English Champion for Children Award from Sesame Workshop, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The honor includes a $15,000 prize from Sesame Workshop to be used to support early childhood work in Pittsburgh.

The two women have operated as a team for a long time. They both worked for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Head Start program, volunteered together at WQED for a few years and, consequently, were hired at WQED as part of the station’s education department. Cook is director of education, with Masciola working as the managing director of education.

“We really have been connected at the hip for so long,” says Cook with a laugh.

Cathy Cook working with early learners. Photo courtesy of WQED.

Having been immersed in early childhood education, they both understand how critical it is to reach children well before they head to kindergarten.

“That is when you learn lessons about how to get along with people,” Cook says. “Those are the building blocks that you’re learning. You learn how to soothe yourself, you learn your coping skills, you learn coping strategies, you learn all these really important skills.”

Through their work with WQED, Cook and Masciola helped expand access to PBS KIDS and Sesame Workshop through an ecosystem of schools, libraries and service organizations. They’ve made WQED a recognized leader in family engagement and early learning, with their education models being adopted by other public media stations across the country.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that we have built these amazing connections with families and communities,” Cook says. “PBS does a beautiful job of bridging this home-to-school connection. I’m so proud that we have taken that one step further. We have found really meaningful ways to connect with families and children and community partners. And trying to reach folks where they are having these educational experiences beyond the four walls of a school.”

The Bobbi English Champion for Children Award was created in 2020 to recognize individuals who have demonstrated a dedication to the enrichment and engagement of kids in their local community. The award is named for the late Bobbi English, the former vice president of North American Television for Sesame Workshop.

“Cathy and Gina are a dynamic duo who bring open, respectful and inclusive hearts and mindsets to their work with children, families and community partners,” says Michael Fragale, vice president and general manager for education strategy and content for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “They turn everyday moments into ‘learning moments’ and truly embody the values and dedication that Bobbi English set for herself and for all of us in public media.”

Gina Masciola with a famous friend. Photo courtesy of WQED.

So, about that $15,000?

“The tentative plan is to pay it forward to those communities that are supporting early childhood education and create mini-grants for childcare facilities and child development classes,” Masciola says. “Those centers can apply to WQED and we would award them a $500 grant, where we would build them a family engagement opportunity and provide the resources for that.”

Beyond the grant money, they want to make sure childcare providers are aware of the professional training courses that are available at no cost.

“Our hope is, even if someone can’t be part of the mini-grants, to provide some professional development experience,” Cook says. “We can show them where they can access these free resources that can be shared with families, caregivers and students.”

Sesame Street in Communities, for example, offers free toolkits and training for both parents and childcare professionals. And PBS KIDS created a free self-paced course for early educators from Pre-K to second grade.

“Gina and I were lucky to be recognized with this award, but there are teams and teams of people behind what we do,” Cook says. “None of this work would be possible without the amazing support of the team at WQED, without our community partners, without the amazing content from PBS KIDS.”