Skip to Main Content

Rural Spotlight: Advancing Early Childhood Education in Danville-Pittsylvania

Regional Matters
October 7, 2021

Rural Spotlight

This post is part of our new Rural Spotlight series, where we explore solutions to the economic challenges faced by rural communities in the Fifth District.


Study after study in economics shows the value of early childhood education (ECE). For example, in 2003, the Minneapolis Fed launched an initiative to both understand and communicate the economic benefits of ECE — one so persuasive that it helped communities, nonprofits, and governments around the country make the case for investments in ECE. 

The case for ECE is so strong because the rewards are large and multidimensional, long-lasting, and reaped over a child’s lifetime. The cost of remediating problems only grows over an individual’s lifetime, so ECE can lead to reduced future spending. Moreover, as we have observed acutely during the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of child care keeps many workers out of the labor force, holding back our economic growth.

The Richmond Fed has been on the lookout for communities that have moved the needle in access and quality of ECE for their residents — and Danville, Virginia, is one such community.

The Early Childhood Scene in Danville

Historically, Danville is a textiles and tobacco manufacturing town that similar to numerous other regions, faced the same declines when these industries shrank beginning in the late 20th century. 

Today, with roughly 100,000 people, the region has made impressive strides in reinventing itself, but significant pockets of need remain. Danville and Pittsylvania County are home to approximately 5,000 children ages 0 to 5, with just under 49 percent in Danville and the remainder in the county. But 38 percent of children under 6 years old live at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty line in Danville, and 24 percent live in “deep poverty” (i.e., 50 percent of the poverty threshold). In the county, 35 percent live at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, and 11 percent live in deep poverty. (See Appendix.)

As recently as 2010, the early childhood scene was not favorable for Danville children. Danville Public Schools had the fifth lowest performance on PALS-K in Virginia, the state’s recognized kindergarten assessment of literacy skills. There was no local access to professional development opportunities for child care providers. The system itself was fragmented, with no evidence-based parent education programs for parents with children under 6 years old, minimal communication between local organizations serving young children, and no umbrella organization connecting school readiness resources. 

The Danville region now has an early childhood ecosystem that simply did not exist before, with organizations working together to address multiple aspects of ECE simultaneously.

How did Danville do it?

Changing the Tide in Danville

This trajectory started to change in 2011. The Danville Regional Foundation (DRF) — a memorial foundation created by the sale of a local hospital in 2005 — provided an initial investment of $5.4 million to ECE in the region. Two million went to building Northside Preschool, and $3.4 million went to the local Smart Beginnings Danville Pittsylvania (SBDP), which at the time was part of the United Way (SBDP became its own 501(c)(3) in 2011). 

This sizable investment created momentum in Danville’s ECE scene. Overall, SBDP took individual efforts within the region devoted to ECE and built an ecosystem around them to maximize their impact and increase their scale with new investment.

With the initial investment, SBDP did several things including using historical data to identify segments of the early childhood pipeline that needed the most support — for example, specific preliteracy gaps for the Head Start program. This awareness led SBDP to work closely with Head Start staff to provide literacy coaching and over 100 hours of mentoring and training. Preliteracy under Head Start increased from 55 percent in 2010 to 86 percent by 2014.

SBDP also created a viability test for its investments: looking for ones that were evidence-based, impactful to at least 50 individuals, and sustainable.

The region exceeded participation in the state’s voluntary quality rating system. This state system gives early learning providers the tools to continually improve the quality of their services. By getting providers to participate in this voluntary program, this allowed hundreds of children to receive higher-quality instruction due to teachers receiving training, equipment, and coaching.

Similiarly, SBDP partnered with elementary schools, Head Start, and churches to create parent education courses, since parental education has been shown to reduce abuse and neglect and increase parent capacity to provide an environment conducive to learning. The region also increased the number of families registering on time for pre-K, and the regional schools now blend marketing efforts and launch registration on the same day.

SBDP also connected the dots between early childhood organizations in the region by creating an executive board representing all key organizations in the early childhood space. It developed working partnerships with both school systems, the health care system, both Head Start programs, the Department of Social Systems, systems of higher education, the regional chamber, and the Danville and Pittsylvania County Community Services Board. 

The Danville region was fortunate to have the DRF as a large capital source willing to make large investments; indeed, the DRF followed up with additional funds in 2016 and 2021. This is certainly not a factor for all communities. However, SBDP also demonstrated a resourceful way to develop sustainable funding sources beyond DRF. The earliest funds went toward sourcing and hiring an executive director and staff. This team then mapped funding sources to identify $13 million annually in local, state, and federal dollars available to support school readiness. Seventy community stakeholders participated in this visioning process and then set priorities and a strategic vision for the community’s early childhood system. From there, SBDP obtained grants from 10 local, state, and national organizations. Moreover, they leveraged DRF funds with add-on grants to make bigger investments.

Key Challenges

These outcomes emerge as the result of many smaller successes. SBDP Executive Director Angela Wells notes they addressed some key challenges:

  • Building trust among existing ECE providers in the region.
  • Collaborating among partner organizations to make their work complementary and thus more impactful.
  • Overcoming a lack of training for the ECE system.


Listen to podcast interview with Angela Wells, executive director of Smart Beginnings Danville Pittsylvania

Download MP3 (12.2 MB, 13:20)

Like all education systems, the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the challenges at hand: children lacking consistent in-person care or learning; safety protocols such as social distancing and quarantines interrupting school consistency for children; teachers having to teach what is essentially two grade levels to catch children up; and staffing shortages.

The overall economic climate has also affected ECE in Danville. For example, providers have dealt with the increase in Virginia’s minimum wage. Wage pressures have added costs to operating child care facilities and have raised costs of child care for parents.

Wells notes that today’s ECE challenge in Danville is not so much access to child care — the facilities exist — but rather the economic choices that parents face in child care costs. Many of the region’s parents are two-income families whose wages are low enough that it often seems to make better economic sense for one parent to stay home than to spend the bulk of a paycheck on child care. Ironically, it can also lead to child care facilities facing insufficient uptake to earn the revenues needed to stay in business.

Wells notes that strengthening ECE can also be important for economic development since the region needs high-quality child care to attract new business. Currently, there’s not enough demand for off-hours care to keep providers open for second or third shifts.

Lessons for Communities

Economists believe ECE is one of the biggest bang for the buck investments that policy dollars can make, but it does take some sizable investments to work. Like so many community issues, a clear takeaway from SBDP’s progress is that a systems approach is required: No single effort was going to move the needle in ECE. They addressed several issues at once, worked hard to keep partners on board, and persevered.

For this effort, Wells points to a few key elements critical to the progress they’ve seen:

  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint: As anyone in economic development knows, change takes time. Incentives and expectations need to be set accordingly. And partners need to be prepared for the need to shift approaches based on needs — as the COVID-19 pandemic taught in spades.
  • Unified vision: A host of agencies work with children ages 0 to 5 and need to collaborate on similar goals. This can’t come through a top-down approach: The vision needs to come from those who are living and working in the community.
  • Equitable access: Anyone working in ECE knows that not all children begin life on equal footing. Children from lower-income families are more likely to face more adversity, and keeping this in mind has raised SBDP’s impact. 

Though not all communities have a large investor like the DRF, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for ECE and brought more resources to the table. For example, the American Rescue Plan, passed in 2021, devotes funds to ECE, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently launched a resource guide to help people in rural and tribal communities increase access to child care. SBDP’s next initiative is a $3.9 million grant from the DRF to sustain a school readiness data system that will track 100 dimensions of readiness, which in turn will inform SBDP’s decisions on strategies to further strengthen the ECE ecosystem. Wells relates this latest effort to the lessons SBDP has learned over the past decade. “There was no one strategy that achieved movement in PALS-K and other successes — it was the result of many systems working together with a number of different strategies.”



The following section includes demographic and economic data for Danville City and Pittsylvania County.

Demographic and Education Statistics

GeographyTotal Population% of Population Ages 25-64% Population (25-64) with High School Diploma or Higher% Population (25-64) with Bachelor's Degree or Higher
Danville City39,869 48.0%85.9%18.7%
Pittsylvania County59,85050.5%87.1%15.7%
Fifth District32,962,83152.2%90.2%36.1%
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau Vintage 2020 County Population Totals, American Community Survey 2019 5-Year Estimates; author’s calculations.

Employment Statistics

GeographyEmployment/Population Ratio (25-64)Labor Force Participation Rate (25-64)Unemployment Rate, December 2019 Unemployment Rate, December 2020
Danville City64.8%70.4%4.2%8.8%
Pittsylvania County69.1%73.1%2.7%5.5%
Fifth District74.0%78.3%2.5%6.2%
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2019 5-Year Estimates; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Local Area Unemployment Statistics; author’s calculations.
Note: December unemployment rates are not seasonally adjusted.