Va. first lady ‘streams’ into Suffolk

Published 9:08 pm Monday, September 9, 2019

Virginia First Lady Pam Northam toured a pair of pre-kindergarten classrooms in Suffolk Monday in an effort to highlight a new early childhood initiative and partnership between the Obici Healthcare Foundation and the University of Virginia.

Northam read to children at both The Children Center and Elephant’s Fork Elementary School, as she got a look at the program and participated in a roundtable discussion on early childhood education.

The Children’s Center Executive Director Rosalind Cutchins showed Northam around the facility and talked about its early childhood program for children ages birth to 5 before the first lady read the James Dean book, “Pete the Kitty’s First Day of Preschool,” to the children. At Elephant’s Fork, she read students Dean’s “Pete the Cat and the Cool Caterpillar.”

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Suffolk Public Schools offers Early Start, which is a Virginia Preschool Initiative program that serves 422 students and is designed to provide a high-quality preschool experience for children. The program’s goal is to reduce differences among young children as they enter school and to reduce or eliminate at-risk factors that lead to early failure in school.

The program is located in the city’s public elementary schools and has a 1:9 teacher-to-student ratio, with qualification for the program based on poverty levels and other risk factors that can affect student success.

“I’ve been able to see them start so young and then all the way through fifth grade, (and) I can just see the difference socially,” said Elephant’s Fork Principal Jessica Avery, talking about the Early Start program. “Today, especially on the fourth day of school, and to see how phenomenal they were, they’re great. They’re benefiting from our program, and teachers are going through the professional development.”

School Board Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum touted the Early Start program with an example of how it has been beneficial. A friend of hers who has a great-nephew from a single-parent family and lives “in somewhat of a poverty situation, somewhat disadvantaged,” went through the Early Start program at Kilby Shores Elementary School and is now in the first grade at Pioneer Elementary School.

Byrum watched his progress from that Early Start class to now, and said he’s able to read most every book given to him.

“That proves that this program is so very valuable,” Byrum said.

While the program uses the High Scope curriculum — designed to give children a strong academic foundation while promoting social skills and creativity — as its core instructional program, it began participating last spring in the new STREAMin3 curriculum pilot initiative funded by the Obici Healthcare Foundation.

The STREAMin3 initiative, in 112 classrooms across Virginia this year — 62 of them in Western Tidewater — is designed to prepare children for success in kindergarten and beyond, with a focus on the “STREAM” skills of science, technology, reading, engineering, art and math.

It also focuses on core skills for children that include relating well with others, regulating emotions, thinking deeply about the world around them, productive communication skills and moving their bodies to achieve goals.

The High Scope curriculum is designed to give children a strong academic foundation while promoting social skills and creativity.

Northam, who was also at Col. Fred Cherry Middle School in late July to look at a program that prepares educators to teach computer science principles, called Suffolk’s Early Start and STREAMin3 program “the gold standard.”

“We’ve been very excited about the progress that we’ve made so far. … We are just so very grateful and this shows the interest, and the heart that we all have in the community,” Northam said. “And it does take all of a community to come together and a great locality like Suffolk to provide for our children.”

The curriculum model, developed by the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at U.Va., is designed to be used for children ages birth through preschool.

The General Assembly last year appropriated more than $5.9 million to U.Va.’s Curry School of Education’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning for the wide-scale implementation of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program and helping to train teachers to enhance the quality of preschool programs while piloting STREAMin3. The Obici Healthcare Foundation added a $1 million grant to support the early childhood initiatives.

Delegate Chris Jones noted the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study on early childhood education in 2017 “and then we put money in the budget last year … (and) Obici stepped in the gap and did what they’ve done, and U.Va. was extremely critical in what we were looking to build as far as a model. And mixed delivery is critically important to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“One of the things I always say when we’re talking about some of the challenges we have in education with achievement gaps, in closing those achievement gaps, is they don’t begin with the third grade SOL (Standards of Learning) test,” said Interim Superintendent Dr. LaToya Harrison. “The achievement gap begins way before our students enter the doors of a school.

“Our mission is always to try to figure out how we can solve that problem of closing those gaps before our students start school so that they enter kindergarten ready and on an even playing field, ready to learn.”

Said State Sen. Louise Lucas: “Every child deserves this opportunity.”