Lynchburg, VA (News & Advance) – First Lady of Virginia Pamela Northam spent Wednesday morning focusing on education in Lynchburg.

Northam’s first stop was the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance where United Way of Central Virginia and Smart Beginnings of Central Virginia announced it had received a more than $526,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The money is for Smart Beginnings of Central Virginia’s Early Education System Alignment Project.

The project’s goal is to prepare children for success in school through professional development and classroom coaching for early childhood educators and monthly family engagement programs, said Karen Wesley, director of educational programming for United Way.

“We have an on average 40 percent attendance rate on [engagement programs] because they’re coming, they’re learning what’s happening in school, there’s no intimidation [and] they’re becoming comfortable in a school environment, and we hope that leads to years and years of parental involvement and engagement in the schools,” Wesley said.

The grant is a multi-year award that runs through August 2020.

With the grant, Smart Beginnings of Central Virginia will continue to support children from birth to 5 years old with community outreach programs such as Gus the Bus.

Campbell County Public School’s Early Childhood Education Coordinator Gerin Martin said the grant will allow for sustainability in the county’s Gus the Bus program. Smart Beginnings has partnered with Campbell County Public Schools to provide Gus the Bus, which is a mobile classroom dedicated to bridging the gap between homes and schools and providing a classroom setting for children 1 to 5 years old to read, learn and have fun.

“It’s exciting that children and families are going to continue to benefit from Gus. Lately, we’ve had younger children come on the bus, so that means they’re going to step their way through the program and hopefully into our schools,” Martin said.

The grant will also pay for professional development of early childhood educators, on-site classroom coaching to help preschool teachers implement new strategies that maximize productivity in age-appropriate ways, training and coaching for childcare providers, family engagement events and peer leader training within preschool programs.

Smart Beginnings of Central Virginia will be able to serve an additional 160 children in its Head Start program and hopefully expand the program to Campbell County Public Schools next year, Wesley said.

“This grant from the Kellogg Foundation supports the activities we know are critical to improving early childhood education across the Commonwealth, and we are so proud,” Northam said during the announcement. “Courageous cities like Lynchburg are leading innovative approaches to early childhood education, and we want to do everything we can at the state level to support you.”

Northam said professional development to ensure positive student-teacher interactions and identifying children in need of services”before they show up in kindergarten without the tools they need,” is essential.

“Each piece of this is a great, great piece in the puzzle to making sure all children have the tools they need to succeed and to enter kindergarten ready,” she said.

After the grant announcement, Northam visited E.C. Glass High School to learn about Lynchburg Beacon of Hope’s Stay Close, Go Far Promise Scholarship Program.

Lynchburg Beacon of Hope Executive Director Laura Hamilton said the five-year promise gives $2,000 annually to students who choose to pursue an associates or bachelors degree at a college or university in Lynchburg after graduation.

“We are so thrilled to be here at the high school, really to celebrate the amazing work that the Beacon of Hope is doing in the future center here to provide a pathway for high school to higher education,” Northam said. “We believe that every child has the capability to succeed if given the tools that they need. That’s what they really do so well here at the future center, providing opportunities for those children to get what they need.”

After a short presentation, students crowded around Northam to introduce themselves.

Northam said it was “amazing” to hear students’ “incredible stories,” and the promise is a “a way to provide a vital injection to a community that’s growing and thriving like Lynchburg.”

“We love that Lynchburg is really doing some innovative things – partnering with nonprofits, with the business community, with local educators – to make some great breakthroughs. That’s very, very hopeful for the community,” Northam said. “You can feel the positive energy of what’s happening here in Lynchburg.”

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