Virginia’s first lady visits Central High School

Pamela Northam, the first lady of Virginia, reads "Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?" to the pre-K class at Central High School on Tuesday as part of her “Back to School” tour. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Virginia’s first lady Pamela Northam, who taught high school biology, was back in her natural setting on Tuesday afternoon as she read “Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What do You See” to the pre-kindergarten class taught by Melissa Runion at  Central High School.

“Who would like to hear a story? Who has listening ears? Show me,” Northam said.

About 15 kids were gathered around Northam, some eager to be her helpers.

She has been traveling the state specifically visiting early childhood education programs and elementary schools to discuss the importance of school readiness.

“There are people doing amazing work. But there is so much more we can do. We just got the information that reading scores are going down. That is not the direction we want to see, so we have some important work left to do,” Northam said walking down a hallway of Central High School.

Pamela Northam sits beside Braden Pangle, left, and Jayson Stevens, right, both 4, during her visit to the pre-K class at Central High School.

Gov. Ralph Northam is a pediatric neurologist. Pam Northam has worked as  a pediatric occupational therapist.

“Both of us understand the critical window of time between birth and kindergarten where 90 percent of the brain is developed. We cannot lose that opportunity. It is so important. We talk about developing the workforce of tomorrow. We believe every child should have the opportunities to succeed and it starts early,” Northam said.

That means making sure the classrooms have the supplies they need and the schools have the resources to create an optimal classroom environment.

“It begins here. This is where we get the most return,” Northam said standing in a loud chaotic classroom of three to five-year-olds.

Pre-kindergarten classrooms were placed where space could be found, including inside Central High School.

Pamela Northam smiles during her visit to a pre-K class. Rich Cooley/Daily

Central principal Melissa Hensley told Northam as they stood among the kids that high school students taking classes in early childhood education come to the classroom and help with the kids. Spanish speaking students also occasionally come to the classroom to teach the kids, as well as acting as interpreters sometimes.

“I am so glad you made it work, Northam said.

Northam said members of her husband’s administration are working hard to find funding to support schools, including for infrastructure.

Northam said one of the duties of the newly created Chief School Readiness Officer position she championed is to bring to Virginia any possible federal money earmarked for education.

“We are doing everything we can,” Northam said. “I call them our superhero teachers. We want to support them.”

The first lady of Virginia, Pamela Northam, arrives Tuesday afternoon armed with a box of books for the pre-K class at Central High School on Tuesday as part of her “Back to School” tour. At left is Central High School principal Melissa Hensley and in the center is Mark Johnston, school superintendent of Shenandoah County Public Schools. Rich Cooley/Daily

Roughly $500 million is invested in early childhood care and education in Virginia with additional resources available this year. More than $55 million in additional federal and state funding will help strengthen child care, Head Start, and the Virginia Preschool Initiative this year, according to a prepared statement from Gov. Northam’s office.

Shenandoah County Public Schools received  $35,997,438 from the state or 53 percent of its total $66.77 million operating budget for the 2018-2019 school year. This was an increase of $1,654,659 from last year’s state funding of $34,342,779.

As the visit was winding down, 4-year-old Jason Stevens approached Northam.

“Mrs. Northam, Jason has something for you,” Superintendent Mark Johnston said.

Stevens was holding a blue beaded necklace.

Pamela Northam gave a coin to each student. Rich Cooley/Daily

Northam bent down so Jason could place the necklace around her neck.

“Can I give you a gift?” Northam asked Jason.

She gave him a First Lady’s coin, a commemorative coin bearing images of Virginia symbols on it.