Nonprofit fills regional need for early childhood education

As we celebrate the back-to-school season with first-day pictures and honor-roll goals, we must also pause to consider the nearly 50,000 kids under 5 in the Greater Peninsula and Northern Neck whose similar hopes are in jeopardy. The difference: early access to foundational skills that prepare kids to succeed in school.

You may know this child. He’s the second born in a family whose eldest has been in child care since 6 months of age. At nearly 1, he’s waiting for a spot to open up. His parents balance work and child care between themselves and relatives. Screens help keep him occupied, but as he becomes increasingly mobile, he needs new stimulation and experiences – more than what family alone can provide.

little boy crawling on floor small

Regardless of income, race, or geography, all children deserve early experiences that support healthy cognitive and social-emotional growth and development.

That’s where FirstSpark, formerly Smart Beginnings Virginia Peninsula, comes in. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the parents and teachers carrying this great responsibility. And when need exceeds capacity, FirstSpark engages our community – families, educators, policymakers, and businesses – to help prioritize needs and fill gaps. We do that by leading our region’s early education quality improvement efforts (VQB5), providing programming and resources to support classrooms and teachers, helping parents access resources, and driving cross-sector dialog and solutions.

FirstSpark is actively engaged in several activities with significant regional impact.

The Mixed-Delivery Preschool Program is a private/public partnership providing publicly funded early learning programs for 230 local children who have been identified as not ready for kindergarten.

“Families with children ages 6 weeks to 5 have access to a full day, full year accredited program without the burden of child care costs,” says Sherry Custis, Peake Childhood Center curriculum coordinator. “The grant also helps us provide competitive salaries and benefits that enable us to hire and retain outstanding staff.”

As FirstSpark shifts into more of a regional systems coordination role as a lead agency for Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s Ready Regions Network, our family councils will take on greater importance, informing efforts to build a more responsive system and serving as a voice for local families. This group connects parents with each other and solutions while aggregating community needs to inform regional solutions and policy.

“There are outlets, resources, and programs you haven’t heard of, that will help you reach goals for your kids,” says Krystal Barnes, a member of FirstSpark’s Family Council. “As someone who’s new to Hampton, FirstSpark and the Family Council are how I’m building a new, local village. Don’t get caught in a bubble where we don’t seek help, because it’s out there!”

Across the United States, and more acutely in underserved regions like ours, we have a system that is too expensive for many to afford, but not generating enough revenue to drive quality education. In our region alone, we have 197 sites for babies and toddlers, but if we look at the availability of spots for families 200% below the poverty level, we only see 1 slot for every 6 babies and toddlers. While Virginia has taken steps to stabilize the system and find long-term solutions, including mixed delivery and flexible parent subsidy programs, demand for these resources is only increasing as more Virginians return to work.

For the sake of our kids and our community, we cannot afford to let this system crumble.

If you’re ready to stand alongside FirstSpark, shoulder-to-shoulder with parents and early education professionals, contact us to learn how you can ignite a child’s bright future.

~Diane Umstead, Executive Director at FirstSpark

*originally published in the Virginian Pilot