Man on a mission

McCollum wants to change the rules for early childhood education

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Gary T. McCollum, the senior vice president and general manager of Cox Communications’ Virginia system, wants to reform early childhood education in the commonwealth.

He is the founding chairman of Elevate Early Education, E3, an advocacy group urging the state to implement comprehensive testing of kindergarten students during the first six to eight weeks of their enrollment to gauge their skills.

“If we do this right, at the end of the day we’re going to see higher graduation rates, and we’re going to see these kids ready to be not just successful in school, but to be successful in life and compete globally,” McCollum says.

The welfare of children is a subject that is close of McCollum’s heart. He grew up in the Whitcomb Court housing project in Richmond, but an early exposure to books and the influence of the Boys & Girls Clubs helped him become the first member of his family to graduate from college.

“I was a high-return kid,” he says. “You invest in me, and I become a net contributor.  I create a net fiscal surplus.  But if you don’t invest in me, then the opposite happens.  We’re not big enough as a country to have any segment of our population not make it and not be viable and not contributing.”

McCollum, 53, attended James Madison University on an ROTC scholarship and graduated with a degree in Russian studies and political science. He served eight years in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer and a member of the Rangers special operations unit.

He joined Cox Communications in 1989 in Hartford, Conn., and earned an MBA degree from the University of Connecticut.

McCollum was regional manager for Cox operations in Roanoke, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads before being promoted to his current post in 2010.

A division of privately held, Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, Cox Communications is the third-largest cable television provider in the U.S.  In Virginia, Cox provides data, video and voice services to 1.5 million subscribers. (Cox does not release any revenue numbers.)

Recently introduced services include a sophisticated home security system, a cloud-based business-class phone system and a network of WiFi hotspots in Northern Virginia.

Active in many educational and civic programs, McCollum spearheaded the launch of Cox Charities, which gave $8.7 million to Virginia nonprofit organizations last year.

McCollum and his wife of 20 years, Cookie, have a 10-month-old daughter. The family lives in Virginia Beach. He also has a 30-year-old daughter from his first marriage, Arielle. She works in retail in New York.

Virginia Business: I saw a story recently that said the [cable TV industry in the U.S. had] a net gain of only 176,000 subscribers [in the first quarter], which is apparently one of the slowest quarters that has been reported.  Are you seeing more growth than that?

McCollum: Well, I think you have to look at it not so much from a cable perspective.  I think you have to look at video usage.  Video usage continues to grow; it’s just that people are consuming video in different ways.  That’s why we’ve offered several applications on our high-speed Internet product because people are actually accessing video over their broadband networks.  As a matter of fact, we’ve launched what we call the video revolution where we’re providing an enhanced package of services. It’s a trio offering that offers more storage and a recommendation engine, which no one, frankly, in our industry offers.  Our box is intuitive enough that up to eight users in the home can actually get recommendations.  It learns your viewing interests and it will actually make recommendations. The point is that we don’t look at it in terms of just traditional cable subscriptions.  We look at the fact that video usage is growing, and we’re leveraging that complete bundle to offer that personal video experience that our customers want.

VB: One of the things that everybody’s grappling with is the changing media habits of young people who don’t have landlines and are less likely to have cable TV.  How do you market to that generation?

McCollum: Well, again, we think broadband is a huge piece of that.  The younger generation may not have a landline phone but they have that wireless device, and that wireless device is connected to the Net.  More than likely when they are home, they are connected via some broadband connection.  So, we really feel like we’re reaching that younger generation and, as [members of] that generation grow up, and marry and have children, other things become more important, like making sure they have a secure home.  Our Cox Home Security product is completely in line with making sure that, as those customers have these kinds of needs, whether they are security or entertainment or communication that we have a product that will serve them.

VB: Is home security a new product for Cox?

McCollum: It is.  We’ve just recently launched it, and we’re very excited.  We’re actually one of the tops in our company [in security sales].  We feel pretty good about the interest shown by our customers.

He picks up a wireless phone to demonstrate.

From this device I can call up my home. That’s actually a picture of the baby’s nursery.  There’s a picture of the pool.  There’s the front door. This is actually live video that I’m looking at and not just still shots … Everything you can do at home to control your home security, you can do it right over this phone.  Let’s say you left your home and you didn’t arm your house.  You can arm it right from here.  Let’s say you have kids who are supposed to be coming off the bus and coming into the home at 3 o’clock, and that didn’t happen.  You can get a text message that says that door did not open, or if it does open and you want to see if that’s your kid who went in the house, you can actually do that as well.

It’s all built on the fact that we’re a trusted provider of these services.  They trusted us with their video.  They trusted us with their telephone and high speed Internet, and now they also trust us to provide them with the home security product.

VB: I see from your résumé that you’re involved in a lot of different groups dealing with kids.  Boys & Girls Clubs, I understand, have a very special connection for you.

McCollum: I am a product of the Boys & Girls Clubs.  I grew up in a housing project in Richmond, and the first person I met who had attended a college was at that Boys Club … it was a Boys Club back in those days.  They have a proven model.  They create a safe place for kids to go.  They not only focus on academics, but they focus on athleticism, and they focus on character …

I hate to say they’re focused on at-risk kids.  I like to call them high-return kids, because that’s really what they are.  I was a high-return kid.  You invest in me, and I become a net contributor.  I create a net fiscal surplus.  But if you don’t invest in me, then the opposite happens.  We’re not big enough as a country to have any segment of our population not make it and not be viable and not contributing.  We have to have that, and Boys & Girls Club is that vehicle.  So we’re proud of our relationship with them.

VB: Is there any one particular person that made a big influence on you?

McCollum: I think the organization itself.  I don’t want to say any particular person.  I think the thing that helped me the most, frankly, was that at a very early age I was exposed to books and reading. That’s one other reason why personally I have this passion around early education.  I do think that if you can reach these kids early … between birth and 5 … it just makes the whole pathway to learning so much easier. 

Again I’m a business guy.  I know that the current model we have is not sustainable.  When you look at the cost of remediation in Virginia, we spend between kindergarten and third grade $85 [million] to $90 million a year to have kids stay behind … repeating a grade.  You can’t continue to do that. That’s not even talking about the cost that we pay when these kids don’t graduate from high school.  That’s not talking about the cost that we pay because teachers frankly have to teach in environments that cause the turnover rate [to be] higher than what it should be.  I think there’s a business principle approach that we have to start looking at with regard to early education. If we do this right, at the end of the day we’re going to see higher graduation rates, and we’re going to see these kids ready to not just be successful in school, but to be successful in life and compete globally.

VB: Tell me about E3.

McCollum: Elevate Early Education or E3.  It’s an organization that I founded last year.  The whole point around E3 was to change the way a state invests in early education.  Step 1, you have to identify the problem.  In other words, how are our kids entering kindergarten?  Today we really don’t know.  There’s one diagnostic called the Phonological Aptitude and Literacy Survey, or PALS test, but it only tests literacy, which is one indicator but it’s not the only indicator of whether a child is going to be successful in K-12.  We’re saying that there has to be a comprehensive assessment tool in place so that, when a child enters kindergarten, we know what kids know and what they don’t know. We can identify those issues and take the appropriate action early on, not waiting until they’re in the ninth grade or they’ve repeated several grades.  That’s too late. 

Literacy is one component and numeracy is another.  But there’re also not just the cognitive skills, there are the noncognitive skills.  How do we teach our kids patience, resilience, empathy?  You can make the argument that those skills are actually more important than the cognitive skills.  Think about your business or my business.  Most people don’t get fired because they can’t read or because they can’t analyze a set of numbers.  They get fired because they don’t play well with others.  It’s those noncognitive skills that we can teach early, and we can test early, and we can start doing things early on.  As a business guy I say that, the earlier you do this, the more efficient you’re going to be. You’re going to get a better result, and at the end of the day, we’re going to see more people graduating from high school.  We’re going to see more people matriculating in two- and four-year schools.  We’re going to get a better work force.  So it’s kind of connecting the dots between early education and work-force development. 

That’s what E3 is all about: putting an assessment tool in place and then also looking at where the state is currently investing in early education. The state is spending money in this space, but I would suggest that we probably have an opportunity to make sure that we’re spending it in the right way.  There are certain programs out there that are not necessarily giving us the results that we need, and we have to make those kinds of tough choices.

VB: So are you saying not necessarily spend more money but be more selective?

McCollum: Absolutely.  I’m a business guy.  I don’t want to see more pressure put on the tax base and increased taxes.  I think there is a case that could be made that you could actually spend as much as you’re spending and potentially less and actually get a better result.  If you look at how we spend money in terms of youth development, we’re spending the money — we’re just spending it on the back-end.  I’m saying if you spend it on the front-end you’re actually going to get a better result, and there’s a case that could be made that you could actually be more efficient.

VB: What sort of steps is your organization taking?

McCollum: We are clearly influencing political leadership.  We were very active in this past General Assembly and working along with Governor McDonnell and his administration.  We were very involved with trying to get this comprehensive assessment in place, and we feel like there’s momentum to have that done.  We’re very happy with the progress. There’s more work to be done, but again it’s about changing the way we look at education.  There are some who would think that early education is not education.  It’s just day care.  It’s just baby-sitting.  Then there are some who think that it is totally a parental issue, and we should stay out of it.  Well, we’d like to take another stand, and the stand is that there are things that we have to do to make sure that these kids are ready when they’re entering kindergarten.  It’s creating, for example, a quality rating improvement system, or a QRIS system, so that as a parent I know what quality early education looks like.  I can say, “This is a five-star [early childhood] center, and I can make an educated choice around where I’m going to send my child to be educated before they enter kindergarten.”  It’s those kinds of things that we’re advocating to make sure that structure is in place to get our kids ready… .

Other states have done this.  Virginia just hasn’t taken this comprehensive approach.  Frankly we haven’t done it because, if you look at what we’ve done in K-12, we’ve been OK.  When you compare us with other states, we’re not horrible.  I think we’ve kind of said, “Well, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  What I’m trying to say is, when you look globally, it is broken.  We can’t compare ourselves just domestically.  We have to look globally.  That’s the world that we’re competing in.  That’s the work force that we’re competing for.

VB: How did your military experience shape your executive style?

McCollum: Leadership is understanding how to lead people.  You have to inspire people.  You have to know people.  People have to trust you.  They have to know that you care … [Leadership] involves you, but it’s not about you.  It’s about these people that you’re leading.  You almost have to turn the organization chart upside down.  If you’re leading, you’re not at the top.  You’re at the bottom. And these folks that you are blessed to lead, you really need to be focusing on not just what they’re doing, but who are they?  What are their career aspirations?  What are they doing when they go home with their families, and what issues are they having?  All of that stuff is just as important as getting the work done.  That’s what I learned in my time in special operations because, unlike the regular Army, in special operations there isn’t a whole lot of focus on rank.  It’s about trust.  We are all in this thing together, and, as a result of that, we’re going to win.

VB: Also, I understand that you’re a licensed minister.

McCollum: I am.

VB: Did you have a church at one time?

McCollum: No.  I’m not a pastor.  I am a licensed minister.  I never thought that that’s something that I wanted to do.  That changed in 1997.  My wife and I took a trip to Israel … To be there and to study the Scriptures, to walk the places where these stories took place, it was just a life-changing experience for me. I remember saying in my prayer time, “God, OK, I get it.  This is what you’ve called me to do, but I have one request.  If this is really what you want me to do, I want you to show me one person who’s doing this … who’s really living this kind of life.  Show me one minister who is doing this.”

So I leave Israel and I come back to the States and I get transferred to Roanoke to run our operation there in Roanoke, and I meet a gentleman by the name of Noel C. Taylor. Noel C. Taylor was the mayor of Roanoke.  He was also the pastor of High Street Baptist Church.  He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer several years before. I had a chance to meet with him on a weekly basis for an entire year just talking about the ministry and talking about scripture, and at the end of that year I was licensed as a Christian minister by Noel C. Taylor. Three weeks later he passed away … 

Here was a man that was an educator.  He was a minister.  He was a pastor.  He was a businessman.  He would never brag about this.  He would always say he was a barefoot boy from Bedford County, but he was just an incredible leader.  He held Roanoke together during the ’60s … The reason Roanoke didn’t have the issues during the ’60s was because of Noel C. Taylor.  When he passed away I think the whole town was shut down.  It’s hard for me to tell this story because he was just a great influence on me.

VB: So how have you used the license since?  Have you preached occasionally?

McCollum: Everywhere I go.  People ask me — where do you preach?  I say — everywhere I go.  You don’t need a pulpit.  I firmly believe that the greatest message that you’ll preach you’ll never have to open your mouth.  People should look at you and they should say — there’s something different about that person.  That’s what I’ve learned from Noel C. Taylor.  He was as sick as you could be and yet he continued to help and serve and to display that leadership presence. He didn’t have to say anything … People are looking for [leaders] who are going to be giving and caring and not selfish … even when they’re having adversity and trials in their life …  That’s the lessons I’ve learned from people like Noel C. Taylor, and that’s why I’m a minister today, because I do think that we have a responsibility to help people.

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