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Speaking of the Economy
Speaking of the Economy - Angela Wells
Speaking of the Economy

Oct. 7, 2021

Rural Spotlight: Advancing Early Childhood Education in Danville-Pittsylvania

Topics: Education & Preparation, Rural Communities
Audiences: Community Advocates, General Public
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Angela Wells, executive director of Smart Beginnings Danville Pittsylvania, discusses how her Southside Virginia organization supports parents, schools and early child care providers in preparing children for success in school and in life.

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Renee Haltom: Hi, I'm Renee Haltom, vice president and regional executive at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Thank you for listening to Speaking of the Economy. You can find past episodes of our podcast on the Richmond Fed's website and on Apple Podcasts.

Today, we'll learn more about Smart Beginnings Danville Pittsylvania and how they prepare children for success in school and in life. The Southside Virginia-based program supports parents, schools and early childcare providers, pretty much every organization that's involved in caring for or educating children up to the age of five.

My guest is the executive director of Smart Beginnings, Angela Wells. She has been with the group since 2011. Thanks for being here, Angela.

Angela Wells: Thank you for having me.

Haltom: There are few issues that excite economists more than early childhood education. Study after study shows that early childhood ed is one of the biggest bang-for-buck investments that a policy dollar can make, both because the returns are reaped over a child's entire lifetime and because the cost of remediating problems only get greater the older a person becomes.

From that perspective, I'm incredibly excited to share how you were able to move the needle on early childhood education in the Danville community, in hopes that others can learn from your story. I hope listeners will check out the written profile on your story for a deeper dive of what you've done.

To start, can you give us a brief history of Smart Beginnings Danville Pittsylvania? Specifically, how did it start? What was its mission?

Wells: In 2011, the leadership of the Danville Regional Foundation had the forethought to invest in early childhood in the Southside area. $5.4 million was awarded to Smart Beginnings Danville Pittsylvania over a five-year period. Of those funds, $2 million of the investment were earmarked for the Danville public schools to support the expansion of the Virginia Preschool Initiative to increase public awareness to high-quality preschool.

Our mission is to strengthen the system of individuals and organizations caring for and educating children ages birth to five. Our goal with that is to ensure that all children are emotionally, intellectually, and physically ready to succeed in school.

Haltom: What key challenges did it face at the outset?

Wells: When I reflect upon challenges that we faced, I would have to start with trust.

As I mentioned just a few minutes earlier, we were a flowthrough for funds for the expansion of the Virginia Preschool Initiative. This led to trust issues for our local private providers offering care for threes and fours. The expansion of the Virginia Preschool Initiative was affecting their enrollment. To overcome that, we worked strategically to build relationships with providers and had the ability to utilize funds from the Danville Regional Foundation to support their needs, from equipment to training.

A similar challenge we faced was starting collaboration. We needed to bring the systems together that worked with children zero to five and [their] families and have them operate in a collaborative mindset rather than in silos. It was a definite mind shift.

Training for this system also became a challenge. In the beginning, there was a lack of accessible high-quality training for the early childhood system. With funding from the Danville Regional Foundation, Smart Beginnings Danville Pittsylvania was able to offer a variety of trainers in this field and bring in experts from outside areas. We started an annual symposium that hosted over 125 participants.

Another challenge we faced was that we were offering a voluntary system for early childhood providers to participate in that focused on best practices and quality education for children zero to five. The Danville Regional Foundation allowed us to provide support to help them meet their goals through coaching, equipment, and professional development.

The largest challenge we faced was low PALS scores. This is a pre-literacy assessment that is used in all elementary schools in the state of Virginia. We're able to overcome this in the first five years by working with a number of organizations within the community, supporting training and coaching around pre-literacy. One strategy was not the key, but a community effort was in place. Because of this, we were able to see an increase in the PALS scores by 2016.

Haltom: That's incredible.

What I'm really hearing is that you didn't just pursue one strategy. You knew this complex problem would require a systems approach. To be honest, I love stories like that because it's realistic and I think it's encouraging for people who may be in your shoes.

I know that sometimes it's such a large undertaking. It can be overwhelming. Can you tell us what were the key factors that allowed you to create change and get going? For example, was it a particular funding stream or unique partnerships, a single policy, or perhaps just certain spark plug leaders who came together and were able to bring others along? What was the secret sauce to enabling change in Danville's case?

Wells: In Danville's case, first and foremost, it was the funding from the Danville Regional Foundation. They were very flexible and we're able to support the needs as they were discovered, rather than a rigid system.

This allowed us to leverage funds from other state and federal dollars to continue to support our work. This was done through strategies such as Virginia Quality, the Infant Toddler Specialist Network, what is now called the Preschool Development Grant, and, most recently, the School Aged Child Care Initiative. We were able to raise additional dollars for every dollar invested in the fiscal year of 2021 to sustain school readiness efforts. And, since 2010, we've been able to raise $3.5 million above the Danville Regional Foundation's original investment.

The ability to offer high-quality training and coaching in the early childhood community was a necessity. Prior to our organization, training was primarily out of town or out of reach for providers. Smart Beginnings Danville Pittsylvania has coordinated over 1,000 hours of high-quality, intensive training for adults working with young children that is now measured by an assessment tool called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System and other evidence-based assessments.

Another key thing for us was our board of directors. We were able to utilize them to build collaboration and communication between organizations serving and affecting finance and policy for young children and families. It was through the composition of the board that we were able to create inclusive working committees.

Finally, having a neutral position [and] creating a space for all partners to talk was key — listening to those who are working with children and families and who actually know what they need – and actually listening to the families themselves.

Haltom: You've mentioned "community" a few times now. To move the needle on complex problems, you need support from a broad set of stakeholders because you need their support and their resources at the table. Were there any particular strategies you approached to engage community members?

Wells: We had to use a multiple-strategy approach. I don't think there's one particular strategy that worked over another. We did things from holding community meetings to offering surveys to putting out flyers utilizing social media, including Facebook and Instagram, [to] word of mouth. Again, circling back to our board of directors was key. Also, we marketed out mass communications to parents about registering early for kindergarten.

Haltom: And so, for similar organizations listening to this who may just be starting on a similar journey, in hindsight, what would have been helpful along the way? What would you have done differently?

Wells: In hindsight, I think we would have had fewer strategies in place. While multiple strategies are necessary, I think we would have focused in on a less amount. Engaging families at a higher level consistently would have definitely brought us better results sooner. And, if we would have been able to have a mandated system from the state for early childhood programs that focused on quality, it would have taken some of the pressure off of the voluntary system that we were working with.

Haltom: I see. Those insights are helpful and, unfortunately, only gained in hindsight sometimes.

What are your two or three biggest lessons learned?

Wells: One of my top lessons is that it's a marathon and not a sprint. Change takes time and we need to be prepared to shift our approaches, and we need funders who are willing to allow that time.

We need a unified vision. We need collaboration between agencies that work with children zero to five. We cannot continue to take a top-down approach. We must listen to those who are actually living and working in the community.

Most importantly, we need equitable access. Not all children begin life on an equal footing. Children from lower-income families are more likely to face more adversity.

We need to continue to educate on the connection between economic development and the investment in early childhood. If I reflect on research that I've read, research from numerous disciplines provide support for the importance of early childhood and economic development. All children must have access to high-quality early childhood education. [According to] a recent article from the First Five Years Fund, society gains up to $7.30 in economic return over the long term. In addition, it has showed that providing long-term benefits to children such as access to high-quality childcare increases parent participation in the workforce and contributes to economic productivity.

Haltom: Thanks for that perspective, Angela. I think we're all seeing the effects of that on the other end of the COVID pandemic, where so many parents had struggles accessing childcare and what that's done to workforce participation. It's certainly something that we hear about every day.

You mentioned issues of equity and access. Tell us what you've seen firsthand in childcare playing a role in the COVID pandemic and keeping parents out of the workforce, especially for lower-income households.

Wells: When I think about access for our communities specifically, it's not access meaning that there are spots available for children. The access is referring more to two working parents having to afford childcare without the support of benefits such as subsidy reimbursed childcare. Very often in our area, we have two working parents. And when we have two working parents, they often don't qualify for the benefits, so what we foresee is that either one parent has to stay home and they're struggling to be able to pay their bills from month to month. Or, we have two parents working where they're unable to afford childcare without subsidy support.

Haltom: And how do you see that playing out going forward?

Wells: We did a parent focus group. One of the things that they said is that it's more affordable for one parent not to work and then the other parent is able to get subsidy or other benefits than for both parents to be working and then be just barely above the line and then not have any supports and then they're unable to make their payments or their bills. So, we're having less parents in the workforce here locally or we're seeing providers who are unable to fill their spots. Very often, we're facing providers who may potentially have to close due to not having full enrollment.

Haltom: That's like a catch 22 that's created right now where there's supply and there's demand, they just can't meet.

Wells: With the raise a minimum wage, we have providers who have to cut back on staffing because they can't afford to raise minimum wage and be able to maintain any kind of profitability. That's one thing I think people forget is that the providers have to have some type of profit to do this. They can do it out of the kindness of their heart, but they still have to be able to pay their bills.

Haltom: On that note, where do you see this program evolving in the future? What are the key challenges going forward?

Wells: Our immediate key challenge is facing recovery from the effects of COVID — for the providers, for families, and for the system itself.

Systems building will continue to be a key challenge for us. We will continue to try to elevate the conversations of early childhood throughout the system.

We would like to engage more with families to understand their support needs. We would like to provide families with assurances to having equitable access to quality experiences.

And, we would like to focus on teacher-child interactions. A child's interactions with adults during the first five years can actually shape their brain architecture for life. We want to educate those who work directly with children on how to have nurturing connections and create positive experiences.

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