A Vision for Early Education in Virginia: Guest Post by First Lady Pamela Northam

Since January of 2018, I have had the honor and privilege of serving as the First Lady of Virginia when my husband, Ralph Northam, became the 73rd Governor of Virginia. I began my professional career in San Antonio, Texas as a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, where I met Ralph during his pediatric neurology residency. I later spent twelve years as a science educator in Hampton Roads before retiring to work at a local environmental nonprofit. Throughout our professional careers, Ralph and I have experienced the joy of sparking curiosity and igniting a passion for learning in young minds. We see the incredible potential in every child, especially in those first five years when about 90% of brain development occurs.

Photo: Office of the Governor of Virginia

In Virginia, we are proud of our education system and that we are consistently ranked among the best states to raise a family. However, the numbers show we can do better at educating our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. According to the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Project (VKRP) 40% of children are not entering kindergarten fully ready with the literacy, math, self-regulation, and social skills needed for success throughout their K-12 years. We also see that 70% of underserved families with children under five lack access to an affordable early childhood care and education option. We can do better. Every child is capable of succeeding in school, and beyond, if he or she has access to quality, affordable early education. Virginia can lead the nation in early childhood education.

Over the past year and a half, we researched all aspects of our education system and visited classrooms in every corner of Virginia. Last August, in particular, our team embarked on an ambitious “Back to School” tour that would take us to all of Virginia’s eight superintendent regions to visit child care, Head Start, Early Head Start, Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI), and elementary classrooms. After nearly 2,000 miles on the road, it became clear that the challenges facing our early education system are diverse, and unique to each community. However, even in some of the most economically depressed communities, we found warm and supportive classroom environments receiving teacher-student interaction scores that put them among the highest rated in the nation.  And their children were thriving.  Dedicated teachers, engaged families, and committed leaders made these programs a success.

Photo: Office of the Governor of Virginia

We are so grateful to talented teachers, who truly hold the future in their hands. We know that every teacher, whether they are working with infants or teenagers, has the ability to make lasting impressions on young minds. Kindergarten teachers play an especially important role as they introduce many students to their first classroom experiences and start them on a journey toward higher education or the workforce. Our administration knows we must provide educators with the compensation and professional development opportunities they need to do their best by our children; that is why we proposed, in the Governor’s most recent budget, a $268 million increase in education spending, including a 5% pay increase for teachers. We also heard concerns that approximately 1,500 VPI+ slots were set to expire this year, which is why we worked with legislators from both parties to include $6 million in state funding to sustain these vital slots starting next school year. These are good first steps, but there is far more work to do.

By 2022 we envision a Virginia where more children enter kindergarten ready to learn and succeed in their school careers. Now, with the support of business leaders, Superintendents, and other community stakeholders, there has never been a better time to make significant and sustainable improvements. It is one of the most important investments we can make for a brighter future for all Virginians. We can and should be a national leader in early education. Virginia’s remarkable educators give me hope for the future, and I look forward to meeting many more of you as we continue traveling the Commonwealth.

Look  for a future blog post from Jenna Conway, Virginia’s first ever Chief School Readiness Officer, with additional information about our vision for a more unified early education system aimed at providing greater support for teachers and more information for parents and families.

More questions? VKRP provides support via the online chat feature when you are in the system, via email vkrp@virginia.edu, and via toll free 866-301-8278 ext. 1

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