Pamela Northam speaks to members of the Improvement Association. Pictured from left are Board Chairman Charlie Caple, Northam, Improvement Association Executive Director Rufus Tyler, Delegate Roslyn Tyler.

Virginia’s First Lady Pamela Northam visited with Board members of the Improvement Association last week in Emporia to receive an overview of the group’s work concerning early childhood education and Head Start program. The wife of Gov. Ralph Northam praised the Improvement Association’s work in Emporia-Greensville as well as Sussex, Surry, Brunswick and, Dinwiddie counties.

“As a former pediatric occupational therapist, I learned how important the earliest years are,” Northam said. “Early intervention is really where you can make the biggest difference, and, I know I’m preaching to the choir about that. I think about Frederick Douglas. He said it’s much better to build a strong child than to repair a broken one.”

The Improvement Association served 262 3-year-old and 4-year old children with preschool education in the region through the National Head Start early childhood development program. While developing skills needed for educational growth is the critical mission of the program, Improvement Association leaders say the development of the whole child is the goal. All new students received medical and dental screenings within five days of enrolling in the program.

Under the Creative Curriculum plan during the 2017-2018 school year, by the end of spring, 100% of children in the program were meeting expectations in math, language, literacy, perceptual-motor, and physical development. Rufus Tyler, the executive director, said the Head Start program’s impact brought an estimated $1.518 million in local savings during that time frame.

Tyler said the contribution of the early childhood program provides before kindergarten is the foundation for participants to meet accreditation. His concern is the salaries of the Head Start teachers being significantly less than public school educators.

“The truth of the matter is, the teachers in Head Start make substantially less than those in the public schools — to the tune of about $10,000 less.”

Northam said the lower pay for Head Start teachers is an issue that needs to be addressed in the state. She said by the time children are in second grade, and behind, they will have a more difficult path to travel to catch up with their classmates.

“Those first few years are so critical,” she said. “If we don’t take care of those first few years, then we have a lot of remedial work to do. Most people are identified with learning disabilities in the ninth grade. That’s a lot of water under the bridge.”

Northam said Virginia was recently recognized as No. 1 in the nation for doing business, but anywhere from No. 33 to No. 37 depending on the measurement used for early childhood education. She said that needs to improve to assure the pipeline continues for business in the state and give Virginia an edge in producing a qualified workforce to attract companies to the state.

Improvement Association leaders presented other aspects of the mission of the organization. They include workforce development and transportation provided to many of its clients in order to give them a hand up or becoming successful, but early childhood education was the main focus of the meeting with Virginia’s First Lady. Northam said different localities have different needs and the state leaders are there to assist in providing the tools to fulfill those needs.

“What we can be doing at the state level is to really empower your local community,” she said. “You all know what you’d better than anyone else and how to meet those needs.”

The Early Childhood Learning & Workforce Center in Sussex County was completed in August of 2018. The facilities staff works toward preparing a job-ready workforce tomato current and future labor market demands in the region. It also includes the Improvement Association’s Early Childhood Initiative.

Sussex County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Keith Blowe said early childhood education is essential to meeting the needs of those going through the program.

“The stats are very clear,” he said. “Kids that have this type of development go on to be much more successful students and also successful citizens.”