Jenna Conway (left), chief deputy at the Virginia Department of Education, speaks with Jan Dorman and Brennan Gould at a meeting of the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area's Early Education Task Force. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
On Wednesday a group of local educators, nonprofit executives and business leaders discussed ways to improve Virginia’s early childhood programs with the state’s first chief school readiness officer.
Jenna Conway was appointed this summer as chief deputy of the Virginia Department of Education, where she oversees the early childhood initiatives of Va. Gov. Ralph S. Northam’s administration. She visited the offices of the United Way- Thomas Jefferson Area to meet with the organization’s Early Education Task Force.
“We know that no single provider, provider type or funding type can serve all kids,” Conway said. “We have to figure out how to work together across an array of options.”
Virginia’s budget for fiscal 2018 included $1.37 billion for early childhood services, with federal funds making up 54 percent of the total.
Conway said only about 25 percent of eligible programs have been rated by Virginia Quality, the state’s voluntary evaluation and improvement system for early learning, however.
One of Conway’s priorities is to create a more comprehensive and consistent evaluation system for all publicly-funded early childhood centers in Virginia, she said. These evaluations should go beyond child safety standards and focus on instructional practices, supporting materials, and interactions between adults and children, according to Conway.
“I am obsessed with measuring every aspect of these settings, and identifying what drives behavior at the classroom level,” she said.
Conway said the evaluations were not intended to “point fingers” at unsuccessful programs.
“All of us have strengths, all of us have weaknesses. This is about having that conversation,” she said.
Conway said she also hopes to simplify Virginia’s Standards for Licensed Day Centers. The latest version of the standards is 73 pages long.
“This incredibly broad set of regulations is what most early childhood leaders see as quality, but that’s not where we are at anymore,” she said. “Of course we need safety, but also want to make these places where children can learn and grow and thrive.”
A Charlottesville native, Conway previously served as Louisiana’s assistant superintendent for early childhood. She led an effort to unify Louisiana’s childcare, Head Start and pre-kindergarten systems after the passage of the state’s 2012 Early Childhood Education Act, also known as Act 3.
In Louisiana, organizations in participating communities partnered with schools and conducted twice-annual evaluations of every teacher in publicly-funded early childhood centers. The state audited these evaluations to verify their authenticity.
“[In Louisiana] we built incredible local capacity to know what excellence looked like,” Conway said.
Michael Chinn, president of S&P Global Market Intelligence and a member of the Early Education Task Force, said some of Conway’s proposed changes could help Virginia attract grants from the federal government and other funding for early childhood programs.
“The promise or aspiration to do all of this foundational stuff — like quality standards and sensible regulations — is likely to attract more dollars,” Chinn said.
Since 2016, the United Way-TJA has administered mixed delivery preschool grants from the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation that place local at-risk 4-year-olds in private preschools.
Ravi Respeto, president of the United Way-TJA, said she would like to see additional support for early childhood in the state budget.
“I’m hoping [state legislators] will see this as a poverty prevention program,” Respeto said. “This might be seen as an equitable approach.”
Brennan Gould, president and CEO of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, asked Conway how early childhood programs could do more to eliminate achievement and opportunity gaps in Virginia’s K-12 public schools. Conway said more program evaluation and data collection would be helpful on this front, as well.
“To observe opportunity gaps, you have to get insight into who is being served, what capacity communities have, and how well kids are being served,” Conway said. “Virginia’s averages are good, but if you pull away layers of the onion you start to see very stark disparities.”

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.