BEDFORD — First lady of Virginia Pamela Northam said visiting area schools and pre-K programs makes her realize how much she misses the classroom.
“I really miss being a teacher,” Northam — a former high school and elementary school teacher — said Thursday afternoon during a visit to Bedford Primary School. “Especially this time of year, when the students are coming back to start off a great year.”
Northam and her husband — Gov. Ralph Northam — have been on a three-day “Back to School” tour and visited schools and preschools throughout Virginia with stops including Harrisonburg, Richmond, Moneta, Bedford and Lynchburg.
“As an old educator, I’m thrilled to be here,” Northam said. “It’s so exciting to see all of the exceptional work being done by our educators, especially at the pre-K level. School’s only been in for a couple of weeks, but these students already are writing their names and learning how to follow directions.”
This is the second year the governor and first lady have toured schools throughout the state.
“We logged more than 2,000 miles last year,” said Danielle Campbell, the first lady’s assistant. “We are trying to match the energy of last year during this year’s tour. By the end of September, we will have visited all eight superintendent regions of Virginia.”
Northam visited a school and child care center in Rocky Mount Thursday morning before heading to Bedford County to visit the Lynchburg Community Action Group’s Head Start center in Moneta and Bedford Primary School. Northam said the focus of this year’s tour was visiting early education programs — which she said have been identified as a priority by her husband’s administration.
“Getting ready for school is so much more than just buying a backpack,” Northam said. “Although we are appreciative of all our teachers, we want to highlight the importance of these early years and the need for early education before kindergarten.”
Northam — who worked in pediatric occupational therapy before teaching high school biology and developing science curriculum for grades kindergarten through fifth grades — said her experience and her husband’s experience as a pediatric neurosurgeon emphasized the necessity of early childhood education.
“About 90% of brain development occurs before kindergarten,” Northam said. “My husband and I know a lot about brain development and how crucial it is to make sure all children have the tools they need to succeed and to enter kindergarten ready.”
Northam said the state has secured a $10 million federal grant that will help 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, and training and coaching for child care providers.
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 crucial to a student’s future success.
“We have child care deserts in Virginia where parents have to go outside of their county for programs,” she said. “That is something we are trying to address. In addition to the grant money the state is going after, my husband has issued a directive to make sure early education programs like the ones we are visiting today receive funding in the state budget. There was money ‘left on the table’ in previous budgets that could have gone to these programs and we want to make sure that we are spending these funds in the best way possible.”
Bedford County Public Schools Superintendent Doug Schuch said early education is a priority in the division’s strategic plan and he appreciates the support for the programs from the governor’s office.
“A high-quality pre-K experience makes the transition to kindergarten much easier for our learners,” Schuch said. “It’s great to have so much support from the state in this.”
Bedford Primary School Principal Lisa Dellis agreed.
“We are so grateful for the support the first lady is providing to our program,” Dellis said. “Programs like this get our students off to a great start.”
Northam also visited the Little Wings Early Learning Center and Healthy Families program in Lynchburg — both on Linden Avenue — Thursday before returning to Richmond.
Marva Johnson — a family support specialist with Healthy Families — said Northam’s visit was “a very pleasant surprise.”
“It’s such a beautiful opportunity for her to learn about our program,” Johnson said. “And it’s been a great experience for our families to meet the first lady of Virginia. Her visit has been really nice and we are glad she is so supportive.”