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Improving the pipeline

Business leaders focus on early childhood education

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Print this page by Gary Robertson
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Manassas City Schools Superintendent
Catherine Magouyrk. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Virginia spends about $78 million a year on students who must repeat a year between kindergarten and the third grade because they simply weren’t ready for school.

That statistic, however, reveals only part of the problem when children aren’t prepared to enter kindergarten. In its efforts to recruit and maintain a skilled workforce, Virginia’s business community has identified early childhood education as an important issue.  The Virginia Chamber of Commerce, in fact, has made early childhood education a key element of its Blueprint Virginia, a comprehensive economic development plan for the state.

“We have an educational system that is broken in preparing a worker for our manufacturing companies,” says Ben Davenport, a Chatham businessman who is a former chairman of the Virginia Chamber. “While we’re beginning to address it, it will take a considerable matter of time for a result.”

Davenport owns three businesses in Southern Virginia, including a waste and recycling company, First Piedmont Corp., as well as energy and communication companies.

He is finding it increasingly difficult to hire the skilled workers he needs. “We have seen a real decline in the quality of education in new hires,” Davenport says.

Employment in Davenport’s region once came primarily from textile and furniture industries, which required only a ninth-grade education. Now the region is reaping a bitter harvest. Those industries largely have moved production overseas, leaving behind former employees and their children.

“In the Danville area, 30 percent of the population was entering kindergarten unprepared” for school, Davenport says. The slow start could put children behind for the rest of their lives, he says.

About five years ago, the Danville Regional Foundation, established in 2005 to invest $200 million from the sale of Danville Regional Medical Center, began investing $5 million in pre-K education in the region.

The foundation works with Smart Beginnings, a group that connects private and public resources, including business, higher education and the faith community for the benefit of young children.

“We made an aggressive effort to turn around [the preparation of children entering school in the Danville area], and it worked,” Davenport says.

Today, he says less than 15 percent of the children showing up for kindergarten in the region are unprepared, as measured by testing and other methodologies. “So we know that the right kind of interaction with children has a profound effect,” Davenport says.

Removing politics
Kathy Glazer, president of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, which provides funding and technical assistance for the Smart Beginnings network, says the beginning of the organization a decade ago was a business-led initiative. “It showed early-on recognition by the business community that this was not a partisan issue, but a workforce investment.”

Support from the business community has helped wring the politics out of early childhood education, she says.

“To me, that has been really a sea change, and a very significant help to overcoming some of the barriers or some of the challenges that we face.”

Glazer adds that Smart Beginnings works in communities with federal programs such as Head Start, as well as state programs such as the Virginia Preschool Initiative that serves at-risk 4-year-olds who are not served by existing preschool programs.

Private efforts, such as programs operated by faith-based and community groups, also are part of the mix.

The Early Childhood Foundation receives $1.5 million annually in state funding for its operations and also raises money from corporations and other private sources in support of an annual budget of $3 million to $4 million.

Glazer says the group also recently helped the state secure a federal grant that will bring the state about $70 million during the next four years. The grant is administered by the Virginia Department of Education.

WHRO push
In another effort, the Hampton Roads public broadcasting outlet WHRO last year gave “teachable moment” training workshops to more than 2,000 parents and 435 teachers.

Summer reading camps and other activities were provided for 5,150 children. Campers showed gains in all of the literacy skills presented in the program, including an 84 percent gain in phonics skills and a 139 percent gain in word recognition skills.

WHRO’s Raising Readers Reading Van also toured the region visiting 57 preschools, elementary schools and daycare centers, distributing over 6,380 books to children most in need.

WHRO is owned by 19 Southeastern Virginia school divisions. Under contract with the Virginia Department of Education, it also delivers statewide online and digital educational services to 286,000 students and 25,000 educators per month.

Manassas efforts
One of Virginia’s boldest efforts to improve early childhood education is occurring in Manassas City Schools.

School Superintendent Catherine Magouyrk  wants to develop a network of parents — working with the business community and others — focused on helping young children learn in the pre-K environment.

One-third of Manassas students are classified as English-language learners, the highest proportion of any school system in the state.

“In elementary school, 60 to 90 percent [of students] could be a second-language learner. We have challenging, but wonderful, schools,” Magouyrk says.

Like many school divisions in Virginia, Manassas doesn’t have enough classrooms for all the pupils who need  pre-K instruction. In the 2014-15 school year, there were 140 children on the waiting list.

This year, Manassas schools will implement a program to provide pre-school to every qualifying 4-year-old. There will be three models employed, ranging from a traditional in-school, full-day pre-K program to an accelerated learning program connecting home and school through mobile technology. That model includes four hours of direct parent training every other week in the school with a certified teacher.

The heart of the program will be a software program called Footsteps2-   Brilliance, which can be used on a variety of devices, including computers and smart phones. The program features a library of interactive children’s books offered in English and Spanish.

Officials hope the software program will help parents, as well as their children, learn English. Also, English speakers can learn Spanish through the program.

To participate, parents must sign contracts pledging to work with their children.  Teachers will be available to assist families along the way and help them learn how to use the software. If they can’t afford a device to use the software, businesses have agreed to help out.

“The first year, we’re leaving the pavement and hitting the dirt road,” Magouyrk says, referring to the experimental nature of the effort. “All I’ve thought about is doing this right. I don’t want to let the families and children down.”




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