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Putting Kids First

The first lady of Virginia has made early childhood education her mission, and so far, she’s making a difference.

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Government offices were closed for the President’s Day holiday, but the periphery of Capitol Square was teeming with families, legislators and advocates, as boisterous laughter could be heard beneath a tent with a popcorn machine and bubbles.

They were there for an event called a Playdate at the Capitol — a celebration of recently expanding early childhood education initiatives. In the thick of it all, stopping to take photos, chat or shout a hello to seemingly every passing legislator or child, was the first lady of Virginia, Pamela Northam.

Donning a red pea coat, the former biology teacher and pediatric occupational therapist seems in her element amongst the fanfare. The first lady is petite and approachable in her interactions with others — whether they are members of the public, colleagues at the Capitol, or her staff, whom she is quick to praise for hard work. She gives encouragement to a youngster who takes a liking to the instruments outside: “He’s going to be a drummer someday!” she says, beaming at a boy hardly knee-high.

Not only has Northam managed to weather a national blackface scandal involving her husband, but a robust legislative package for early childhood care and education, as well as a $94.8 million item in the governor’s budget to improve the quality and accessibility of such initiatives to low-income families, unifying such programs under the Department of Education — will achieve funding this session.

The Bipartisan Policy Center ranks the state 37th in early childhood governance and the National Institute for Early Education Research places the state at 33rd in preschool funding, resulting in opportunity gaps for economically disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds. Only 36% of the latter attend preschool. Across Virginia, more than 40 percent of children show up to kindergarten unprepared.

A similar proposal crafted by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation was killed in subcommittee by Republican leadership last year. Such legislation historically has been pigeon-holed with conservative majorities chiefly arguing the cost would be too high.

A priority for his term, Gov. Ralph Northam could have implemented many of the proposed measures through executive orders, but the first lady chose instead to push the package across the aisle and cut costs through careful consolidation, and the same week as the Capitol Playdate, her signature package passed 89-11 in the House following a 31-5 Senate vote the prior week.

Northam’s peers credit her success in championing such a comprehensive legislative package to these inherent characteristics.

“She is so gracious,” says Delegate Betsy Carr, who brought along her granddaughter, a harpist who likes algebra, to the day’s event. “She is with you whenever you’re talking to her — she is right there with you, she’s not somebody who’s looking off seeing what else is coming. And she carries forward the things she thinks are important for our children, for our state.”

Northam certainly put in the legwork: She and her team travelled more than 5,000 miles across the state to raise awareness about the issue and the importance of making access to programs more equitable.

On the outskirts of the play date tent, Northam waves at legislators from both sides of the aisle, exchanging cheery hellos and hugs with Democratic members of the Black Legislative Caucus, as well as a brief embrace with Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger.
Her relationship with Hanger dates back a decade, to when she was a science teacher bringing experiential learning initiatives into her classrooms. One such project entailed raising trout in the classroom and releasing them with the students into streams in Hanger’s district, when the governor was just a state senator.

David Cary, her chief of staff, points to “the amount of time she spent both in [legislators’] districts with them, sitting down with them again, sending staff to meetings to break down the issues further over the past few weeks have led to this pretty complicated legislation and budget coming out pretty much the way everyone wanted in the end.”

Today Northam is all business, sharply pivoting questions about her personal life to the policy implications of the couple’s shared concerns regarding “our most vulnerable Virginians,” a demographic she and her husband have held central to their careers prior to becoming governor and first lady.

Her level-headedness is not surprising given that one of her most exposed moments on the national stage was as she sternly shook her head and pulled her husband back as he seemingly geared up to do the moonwalk at a now notorious news conference.

The governor and his administration weathered the worst of that storm. They have managed to propel a number of items that failed in previous administrations, including gun control and the Equal Rights Amendment.

A typical day for the first lady is a long one — and they have been since before her husband took office. While on the campaign trail, she quickly assumed the role of his surrogate when the candidate for lieutenant governor and governor could only meet so many obligations. She continues that work today — almost as if the Capitol is an extension of her classroom.

At a midday event inside the Patrick Henry Building, Northam and Janice Underwood, the state’s inaugural director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, are playing host to a dozen preteens around a conference table.

Plates of cookies dot the ends of the table as the girls nibble from napkins emblazoned with the state emblem. The group comprises Girl Scouts who have been invited to share with Northam and Underwood — both former science teachers — their science, technology, engineering and mathematics projects and pursuits, in exchange for lessons from both women about professional conduct in the classrooms and careers.

As the girls present to the conference room filled with staffers and chaperones, Northam and Underwood chime in with enthusiastic comments about robotics, cybersecurity and 3-D modeling, the first lady exclaiming how much “I just love those illustrations!”

“They’re so generous with their time,” a staffer whispers with a side-eye to another aide from the periphery of the room, “They’ll miss next appointments for stuff like this.”

The theme of education and science has played a profound role in the first lady’s life. She once worked as a high school biology teacher, where she became a national award-winning science specialist who recognized the need for science and technology in elementary education.

Science even played a role in how she first met her husband. More specifically, for this couple, it all started with a sick kitten.

Pamela first met Ralph while the future governor was still in his pediatrics residency in San Antonio, Texas, and she was a pediatric occupational therapist.

After initially being introduced through friends, Northam brought over tools from his neonatal intensive care unit so they could build a feline feeding apparatus to save a kitten, Lamont, born in her closet to a stray she had adopted.

The first lady and governor’s teams do not shy away from addressing the less glamorous aspects of Northam’s tenure. When asked what it has been like to weather such a tumultuous year and come out the other side relatively unscathed, the first lady is poised in her response, keeping a forward-facing mentality.

“My focus today is the same as it has been since Ralph took office in January 2018,” she says. “We are dedicated to making transformative change in our early childhood education system and providing opportunities for all children, no matter who they are or where they live — that’s been and will continue to be my top priority.”

The Northams have two children: Wes, a neurosurgery resident, and Aubrey, a web developer. Not long ago, Virginia’s first couple shared a Valentine’s Day dinner together at Lehja in Short Pump, and the first lady was clearly excited about getting some time together during their packed schedules.

“Oh, it was great just hanging out. It doesn’t happen frequently enough. It’s hard to spend time alone together,” she says. “It’s kind of funny because I love Indian food and the gov was nice to do that — he loved the Indian food there. He’d probably prefer barbecue, but in this case he said it was better than that.”
She quickly pivots away from her private life to reiterate that the most rewarding part of her role is the opportunity to increase access to education for young residents — when the legislation becomes law, 11,000 kids will immediately be taken off of lists for such opportunities, in addition to the 7,000 additional slots the administration has secured for children with no additional funding by consolidating oversight of the issue. She notes that it’s this passion for children that is what “gets me up in the morning and gives me great joy.”

“Children have always been a priority in our life and when we talk about brain science, as a neurologist and therapist, we knew the importance of those earliest years from zero to 5 years old when the brain grows exponentially,” Northam says. “And if we miss that window of time developmentally then we’re not giving the children what they need.”

As for next steps at the Governor’s Mansion, the first lady is gearing up for implementation.

Her chief of staff reiterates how she has met with every member of the House Appropriations Committee and has made two or three attempts to contact each senator, having met with all but one or two. Northam is eager to hit the road again when the session ends.

“There are still so many more voices we need to hear and people we need to meet,” she says. “I’m dedicating the next two years to implementing this historic early childhood education package because every child deserves to have a great start in life, and when our children thrive, Virginia thrives, too.”

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