It’s hard not to have your spirits lifted by enthusiastic young children, and U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger is no exception.
Her joy was evident as the 7th District congresswoman interacted with children at Culpeper Head Start and Kid Central’s facilities early Tuesday morning.
The freshman Democrat came to talk with Head Start staff members during the first stop of a two-day Education Tour of localities across Central Virginia. Then came the fun stuff: meeting and chatting with dozens of Head Start students in their school on Old Fredericksburg Road.
At day’s end, after also visiting three more schools in Goochland and Chesterfield counties, Spanberger was still pumped up about her Culpeper experience.
“I was so impressed with the program,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s a beautiful facility. Clearly, it has a tremendously committed staff. The kids are just precious. And I think the program is proof of the value of Head Start programs in our communities.”
The lawmaker noted that Culpeper Head Start has helped working parents, opened fields for intramural sports, renovated an old school, and improved a neighborhood.
“When we’re focused on making sure that our kids have opportunities even at the very earliest stages of their life, the consequences extend far beyond the individual child to their family and the larger community,” she said.
Starting at 8 o’clock sharp, Spanberger met with 10 top officials who run and oversee Culpeper’s Head Start programs, including two members of Culpeper Human Services’ governing board, Rudolf Travers and John Cerio, the board chair.
They discussed the importance of federal support to Head Start’s work, and the ways that early childhood education sets children up for success.
A 2015 federal grant made it possible to renovate the old school and build a 5,000-square-foot addition that includes a dental clinic, a training room and an ADA-compliant elevator. The changes allowed Culpeper Head Start to accommodate more than 100 infants and toddlers.
Now, Head Start—which serves Culpeper County’s most vulnerable children—educates 140 3- to 5-year-old children. Culpeper’s Early Head Start program serves 102 younger children, from birth to age 3.
Providing early learning to kids and comprehensive services to their families helps puts young people on a path to achieve stability and success, Culpeper officials said.
The venture began as Kid Central, a before and after-school program, in the 1990-91 school year. Culpeper had only one licensed child-care program then. Then as now, many local families needed a good-quality daytime program for their children so they could work.
After the adults finished, the fun began. First stop: a classroom where kids were learning about fire safety. Spanberger asked them, one by one, what they wanted to be when they grew up. Answers varied: future firefighters, truck drivers, and ninja turtles.
In the next classroom, the congresswoman and other visitors were serenaded by students and teachers singing “Good Morning,” a catchy tune with lyrics by Shawn Brown. In part, it goes like this:
Good, good, good, good morning
Go to your cubby, put your stuff away
The sooner you do, the sooner we play
We can do this or we can do that, we can play right here on this mat
I can read a book, I can get a toy, talk to a friend, a girl or a boy
From there, the students’ discussion turned to their boo-boos (cuts and scrapes), their questions of their special visitor, including one girl’s query about the red, white and blue pendant that ”Miss Abigail” wore on a necklace.
“When I’m out doing stuff for work, I have to wear this. It’s kind of like a [class-trip] T-shirt, sort of,” the legislator explained. “Everybody has a matching one. So when we’re in the Capitol building, they know which offices we can go to.”
The emblem—most often worn as a lapel pin—helps Capitol Police identify members, particularly freshmen, around Capitol Hill.
In Early Head Start’s Classroom 8, Spanberger met very young children, including Marquelle Smith of Culpeper, who she held in her arms. Then it was onto the auditorium, where the Henrico resident traded high-fives with a table of students.
Stepping outside, she posed for a group portrait with Head Start and Human Services leaders before heading to Reynolds Community College in Goochland.
Afterward, Culpeper Head Start Director Dorenda Pullen and her colleagues expressed support for the bipartisan work-study proposal.
“It would allow us to broaden our work force,” Pullen said an interview after the tour. “We would have more qualified teachers and could also improve the quality of education we’re providing to our children and their families.”
Asked if another member of Congress had previously visited Culpeper’s Head Start facilities, the officials paused to recollect and said no, Spanberger is the first.
In August, Spanberger and Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla, and Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, introduced bipartisan legislation to enable Head Start programs to receive federal work-study dollars by making jobs in early childhood education eligible as community service. Their idea is inspire more diverse and talented people to pursue teaching, by demonstrating to young people that educating the nation’s children provides good jobs and is an important way to give back.
Thousands of college students use the federal work-study program to earn extra income and help pay for college. Many are preparing for careers in early childhood education. But as things stand now, they’re unable to use work-study dollars to serve in Head Start centers. The trio of House members hopes to change that.
H.R. 4196, their bill to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965, is before the House Education and Labor Committee.
Spanberger said her sponsorship of the legislation grew from her overarching interest in how college students can graduate with less debt and get a jumpstart on their careers.
She said the Head Start bill would unite providing better opportunities for children early in life, reducing college students’ debt, and strengthening the qualifications of the nation’s teachers.
“It’s a fantastic way to bring all that together,” the lawmaker said. “Allowing work-study dollars in Head Start helps individual college students and helps Head Start programs.”
When those students go into the work force, they’ll have better experience as teachers, and may choose to return upon graduation to become a full-time instructor in a Head Start program, Spanberger said.
The rest of the day, she visited with community college, high school and middle school staff and students, focusing on apprenticeships and vocational programs.