Virginia first lady Pamela Northam once was a high school biology teacher. On Tuesday, she taught the subject in a different way when she visited Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Albemarle County.

As she read aloud from “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?,” Northam asked a group of preschoolers to make predictions about each of the animals featured in the picture book.

“I wonder: How might a flying squirrel fly?” Northam asked. “What color might a mountain goat be?”

Northam’s visit was part of her statewide Back to School Tour to promote kindergarten readiness and investment in early childhood education.

“We love what is happening here in Charlottesville,” Northam said. “We just want to expand that and open up more spots [in preschools] for our children.”

In addition to Agnor-Hurt, Northam visited preschoolers at Greenbrier Elementary in Charlottesville. At both stops, she distributed books donated by the Soho Center, an arts and education nonprofit based in Madison County.

Two of Agnor-Hurt’s preschool classrooms are supported by Albemarle’s Bright Stars program. An adjacent classroom hosts students in the Monticello Area Community Action Agency’s Head Start program.

Doug Granger, principal of Agnor-Hurt, said this is the first year that these preschool classrooms have been in the same corner of the school building.

“The kids don’t know whether they are in Bright Stars or Head Start; they just know that they are the only 4-year-olds in the school,” Granger said. “Being close together makes them even more comfortable in our space.”

In June, Gov. Ralph Northam appointed the first lady as chairwoman of the Children’s Cabinet. Other members of the cabinet are Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and the secretaries of agriculture and forestry; education; health and human resources; and public safety and homeland security.

Founded in 2014 by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Children’s Cabinet aims to identify goals and strategies to advance state priorities for the wellbeing of children. This year, the cabinet will study health care for mothers and infants, high-quality preschool, school safety, nutrition and responses to childhood trauma.

“We want to streamline what we are doing and break out of our different silos,” Pamela Northam said. “We are bringing together all the people who are involved in the lives of children.”

Jenna Conway, chief deputy at the Virginia Department of Education, will aid the Children’s Cabinet as the state’s first chief school readiness officer. Conway, a graduate of Charlottesville High School, previously served as Louisiana’s assistant superintendent for early childhood.

In a 2014 study, researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education estimated that one-third of kindergarteners in the state lacked critical skills for social interaction, self-regulation, literacy and math.

“The governor put this new role in place to bring together various state agencies and stakeholders … to figure out how we can unify the system at the state level and develop better solutions,” Conway said.

“As a society, we have moved away from calling preschool ‘babysitting,’” she said. “Virginia, with its incredible local capacity, is poised to be a national model for early childhood education. … It’s now time for us to put our money where our mouth is.”

This fall, Conway is slated to meet with the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area’s Early Education Task Force and share feedback on the next phase of its work.

Since 2015, the task force has focused on expanding preschool opportunities for at-risk 4-year-olds. Ravi K. Respeto, president of the local United Way, said the task force plans to expand its scope to include all at-risk children 5 and under.

“We want all children to have the same level playing field on which they can learn and be successful,” Respeto said.

The local United Way is continuing to build out the Children’s Data Consortium. Formerly known as the Outcome Collaborative, the new reporting system will enable a longitudinal study of children in Albemarle and Charlottesville preschool programs.

“The goal is to have the first bits of information by next summer,” Respeto said. “It will help us learn what types of support we need to provide and identify which families are eligible for services.”


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.