Building Children’s Futures

Dr. Robert H. Sandel

Hundreds of children around the Commonwealth entered an exciting new world this fall--Kindergarten. They probably walked into the classroom wearing new shoes and toting a new backpack filled with brand new school supplies. But did they come ready to learn and succeed in school? That question is much more complex that it might initially seem.

The start of a new school year is a good time to remind all Virginians that the learning process actually begins long before the first day of Kindergarten. The latest research data has proven that more than 85 percent of a child’s brain network is wired in the first five years of life. Environmental and health factors, combined with early learning experiences, determine their lifelong ability to learn, to relate to others, to be productive in the workplace and to be fully engaged citizens. Investing early is a smart beginning to their future success.

The goal of the Building Children’s Futures in the Greater Roanoke Valley is to work together to support young children’s growth and development in order to ensure they start to school healthy and prepared for success. It is a task that we must vigilantly pursue, not only because providing every child with an opportunity to be healthy, educated and successful in life is the right thing to do, but also for the long-term economic and workforce benefits that result from investing in our youngest citizens.

At the Governor’s Summit on Early Childhood Development in July 2007, both Governor Tim Kaine and Jeffrey M. Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, cited conclusive evidence in long-term studies showing that high quality early childhood programs yield high returns in terms of a more productive, more motivated and more knowledgeable workforce.

It is a fact that the crime rate and rate of incarceration is lower among juveniles and adults who participated in quality early learning programs as children. In addition, children with good early learning opportunities have higher rates of graduation, lower rates of dropout and are more likely to pursue secondary education.

With so many of our children in childcare, it is important that we work together to get it right. Virginia is aligning her early childhood systems, while agencies and organizations are working together to improve early care and education across the Commonwealth. But these efforts also need continued support at the highest legislative levels to be effective.

As the Chair of the Building Children’s Futures Coalition, I have been encouraged by the collaborative, bi-partisan support of business leaders and Virginia citizens. Here in the Roanoke Valley, we were fortunate to receive a grant and technical assistance from the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation. The Foundation, a public-private partnership established in 2005, has awarded more than $2.4 million in grants to local communities across Virginia.

Through its grants, the Foundation brings local and regional stakeholders together to create or strengthen a wide-ranging infrastructure that provides a coordinated, cost-efficient means for families to support their children’s growth and development, giving them a solid foundation for future success.

I firmly believe that there is nothing we cannot achieve as Americans when we put our minds together. Knowing what we know, let’s focus our attention and investment where it makes the most difference – let’s give our young Virginians a smart beginning for school readiness and become a model for the nation.

Editor’s note: Dr. Bobby Sandel chairs the Smart Beginning/Building Children’s Futures Coalition in the Greater Roanoke Valley. He is the president of Virginia Western Community College and a strong advocate for early childhood development.

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The United Way of Roanoke Valley serves as the fiscal agent for Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke.

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