Virginia first lady joins United Way of Southwest Va., Ballad Health to announce kindergarten readiness initiative


Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam announced Wednesday the creation of a Pre-K program to make around 450 southwest Virginia children better ready for kindergarten. The three-week Kinder Camps program will be funded to the tune of just under $200,000 by Ballad Health and administered by the United Way of Southwest Virginia in 30 locations.

“We’ll work with school systems to host the camps for children whose assessments show they may be behind,” said Travis Staton CEO of the United Way of Southwest Virginia. “Then we’ll work with their children and also the families to make sure we do everything we can in those three weeks, not only academically, but emotionally and socially.”

Research shows that in some areas of Southwest Virginia, approximately 45 percent of children are not prepared to enter kindergarten, and nearly half of southwest Virginia students are lacking in the areas of literacy, math, social skills, and social regulation. “Virginia’s littlest learners are among the most affected by the pandemic, but they are strong, they are resilient, and with access to quality early learning opportunities, we know they can thrive in school and beyond,” Northam said.

Because many pre-schools were closed for the last year because of the COVID crisis, Staton said he anticipates there will be great demand for the program. “This will also help the kindergartners who are not behind, and who are not even part of the program,” Staton said. “Kindergarten teachers tell us that so much of the first part of the year is spent helping children who need work on developmental things like being able to get in line or sit with their classmates. This will help address those issues.”

Staton and Ballad Heath CEO Alan Levine, whose organizations are partners in the STRONG Accountable Care Community, also agreed that it makes sense to invest in early childhood education because the return on investment is greater and problems are easier to solve than they are later in the education process.

“We’re bringing solutions to communities based on the needs of those communities,” said Alan Levine, Ballad chairman and CEO. “There’s no better way to bring equity to our communities than to ensure that our children are kindergarten-ready.”

Kindergarten readiness is considered the first accurate predictor of how successful a child will be throughout the K-12 process. Children who enter kindergarten ready to learn have higher third grade reading level proficiency, which in turn accurately predicts high school graduation rates. Levine said, “we have a role from the moment we deliver every baby in this region to provide a strong start.”

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