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Early Childhood Years Imperative

Business and Military Leaders Make the Case at Summit
Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Jim Cheng
Four of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s cabinet secretaries joined a retired general, two legislators and almost 200 business and community leaders for a summit at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen last month – but the focus wasn’t “business as usual.”

Instead of discussing bottom lines and economic indicators, participants studied diagrams of the human brain and statistics on early child development and attended break-out sessions about preschool access and child care subsidies. Speakers – who included Gerard Robinson and William A. Hazel, Jr., MD, state secretaries of education and health and human resources – zeroed in on topics such as child health and preschool quality.

And when Terrie L. Suit, assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness, shared good news via videotape from the U.S. Department of Defense, it wasn’t about a military installation or the base realignment program.

Instead, Suit’s announcement highlighted Virginia’s status as one of 13 states recently chosen to participate in a nationwide pilot partnership providing military families with quality early childhood programs.

Why were generals, cabinet members and high-powered business leaders talking about infant and toddler brains and pre-K education?

It makes perfect sense, said Jim Cheng, secretary of commerce and trade for the commonwealth; early education is a workforce issue.

Readiness for school is essential for success in school, said Cheng, and well-equipped students act as springboards to workforce development and economic growth.

Retired Brigadier General John W. Douglass went a step further.

Readiness for school, said Douglass, has become a national security issue as well.

A Great Resource
Cheng, who spoke at an Oct. 20 kick-off breakfast attended by state delegates Betsy Carr and Joe Morrissey, came to promote VaJobOne. An initiative of the summit sponsor, the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, the coalition of business leaders has embraced school readiness as a tool for workforce development and seeks to advance early childhood initiatives and shape public policy accordingly.

Born in Taiwan and a world traveler since youth, Cheng emphasized the global nature of economic competition, described visits to manufacturing plants and the growing demand for skilled technicians, and underscored the need to inspire more youth to pursue engineering and science careers.

“If we lose them,” said Cheng, “we lose a great resource, and may lose the competition against the world.”

Referring to studies that have established a rate of return of up to $16 for every dollar spent on early childhood education, Cheng said, “As a businessman, I’ll take a 16-to-one return.”

Demographic Surprise
One of 90 retired military leaders who has taken up the cause of early childhood education through the organization Mission Readiness, Douglass recalled that as an active general, he focused on such concerns as weapons development and worried about “technological surprise.”

“But what’s happening to us now,” he warned, “is we’re coming up on a demographic surprise.”

When he graduated college in 1963, said Douglass, 70 percent of prospective recruits qualified for the military. Today only 25 percent would qualify – even though the pool now includes males and females. The three most common barriers for potential recruits are failure to complete high school, criminal records, and physical fitness issues such as obesity.

“So if we had a draft today,” he said, “only 10 to 15 percent of males would be eligible.”
Once the nation gets behind the demographic curve, it becomes very difficult to catch up, added Douglass. Yet if current trends continue and thousands of disadvantaged preschoolers arrive at Virginia kindergartens unready to learn, only three in ten of those at-risk preschoolers will eventually graduate high school.

“And that,” said Douglass, “is unacceptable.”

Prescription for Health Kids
In a presentation by Colleen Kraft, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, summit participants learned about just one disadvantaged preschooler – a little girl named Lia seen by Kraft in her practice – and how early intervention helped turn her around after a poor start in life.

Such intervention is crucial, said Kraft, because of what is known about brain development in the preschool years; research tells us that by age five, the brain achieves at least 85 percent of its development.

But without better access to quality health care and education in those early years, she lamented, too few children will be reached in time as Lia was.

“I can write a prescription for Amoxicillin for an earache, and can get it filled in any pharmacy,” Kraft said.

“But what I want to be able to write is a prescription for a positive social-emotional development program, and have it filled in a child care center. I want to write a prescription for an obesity prevention program and have it filled at a preschool. I want to write a prescription for healthy mother-child interaction and have it filled by a home visitor.

“These are the prescriptions,” said Kraft, “that need to be filled if your goal is healthy child development.”

In his keynote, Tom Chewning, VECF board chairman and former executive vice president of Dominion, summed up that early childhood education is “more than just good will. It has moved from a moral imperative to a national health issue, and a military and national security concern.”

He noted that some 15 percent of Virginia students arrive at kindergarten unequipped with what they need to succeed and already at risk of becoming drop-outs.

“If you were a farmer,” said Chewning grimly, “and you lost 15 percent of your crop every year, you wouldn’t last long.”

Why Can’t We?
More than one speaker at the conference noted that Virginia has long lagged behind other states in early childhood initiatives, and that the issue has become far too politicized.

“Red states are doing it,” said Paul Hirschbiel, immediate past chair of VECF. “Blue states are doing it. This is a nonpartisan issue.”

VECF President Scott Hippert expressed frustration that Virginia is still “creeping along” in comparison to other states.

“Why can’t we do this?” said Hippert. “We know for every dollar [invested] we’re going to make or save 16. So what is the problem? When does Virginia start investing?”

But Hippert also said he was encouraged by attendance at the summit, and by the enthusiastic participation from political leaders and members of the business community.

“We’ve had four cabinet secretaries at the seminar; our foundation board has five members of the General Assembly,” said Hippert. “We had two legislators at breakfast. The state’s commerce department is on our side – that’s pretty incredible. And the Department of Defense is with us.”

Chewning echoed Hippert’s assessment that awareness of the issue is growing.

“We’re beginning to see a real recognition of the need to invest more and smarter – that this is not a short-term issue, it’s a perennial issue. It’s taking a life and developing it to the fullest potential,” said Chewning. “No business is more important to the state of Virginia than this one.”

“Early childhood development,” reiterated Hippert, “is the engine that drives education, which drives prosperity, which drives the work force, which drives the national security.

“We have to stimulate brains at a very young age. [When we do], we will save this state millions, if not billions of dollars -- while helping Virginia’s kids.”


Community

Varina Ruritans honor students

The Varina Ruritan Club hosted the winners of its 2014 Environmental Essay contest at its monthly meeting March 11 in Varina.

The contest, in its eighth year, was for the first time open to students in grades 3-5 at Varina Elementary School. (It previously was open to Sandston Elementary School students.)

The meeting included the winners, parents of the winners, Varina Elementary principal Mark Tyler and several teachers who were in charge of the contest at the school. > Read more.

Baseball game to benefit Glen Allen Buddy Ball


For the fifth consecutive year, St. Christopher’s and Benedictine will play a varsity baseball game at Glen Allen's RF&P Park as part of a fundraising effort for the River City Buddy Ball program.

The game will take place Saturday, April 12, at 7 p.m., and the teams hope to raise $3,000 through donations, raffles and other efforts. Admission to the game is free, but fans who attend are asked to donate funds for the Glen Allen Youth Athletic Association's Buddy Ball program, which enables disabled children and teens to play baseball. > Read more.

Highland Springs field to be dedicated in honor of longtime coach Spears

The Henrico Division of Recreation and Parks will dedicate the Highland Springs Little League Majors Field in memory and honor of Rev. Robert “Bob” L. Spears, Jr., on April 12 with a ceremony at the field at 8 a.m.

Spears served the league as a coach and volunteer for 30 years and was praised as a pioneer for equality. His “Finish strong” motto embodied ethical perseverance on the field and in life. > Read more.

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Entertainment

A fun, fuzzy ride

‘Muppets Most Wanted’ worthy of its franchise

Do Muppets sleep? It’s hard to say.

They don’t really eat (or breathe, as far as anyone can tell). And only occasionally do they have visible, functioning legs.

As far as anyone knows, sleeping might be off the table. And that makes it very hard to accuse the Muppets of sleepwalking through their latest feature, Muppets Most Wanted – even if that’s exactly what’s going on.

Jim Henson’s beloved creations were back in a big way after 2011’s The Muppets, with fame and fortune and even an Oscar, a first for the group (“Rainbow Connection” was nominated, yet somehow failed to collect at the ’79 ceremony). > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


There’s no excuse for kids and families to not get out of the house this weekend! The Armour House and Gardens has an “Egg-celent Egg-venture” planned and Reynolds Community College will host the Reynolds Family Palooza. If you’re looking to give back to your community, Dorey Park will host Walk Like MADD and coordinators2inc will present the annual Kids Walk for Kids. And a special event for children with special needs will be on Sunday – the Caring Bunny will be at Virginia Center Commons. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

A new meaning for fried chicken

Is it heresy to say – in this bastion-of-tradition capital of the Old South – that it's time for Southern fried chicken to take a step back and make way for a new fried chicken king?

Count me among the new believers bowing to Bonchon Chicken's delectable double-fried bliss. Hand-brushed with signature garlic soy or hot sauce, flash-fried once and then again, the decadent drums and wings take "crisp" to a new level. If you're eating with a crowd and everyone bites in at once, be warned: you might need ear plugs to handle the din. > Read more.

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