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Foundation makes $1M grant

Initiative will fund improvements, curriculum in 24 Suffolk preschool classrooms

The Obici Healthcare Foundation on Wednesday announced a $1 million grant to help improve early childhood education in Suffolk and Western Tidewater, signaling a shift in the way it funds programs and initiatives that will improve the health of local residents.

Since its inception in 2006, the foundation has given an average of $4.5 million a year to various entities working to prevent health problems and increase access to care.

But heeding research showing that factors like education and income also affect health, the board decided to expand the ways in which the foundation aims for its goals of improving health Suffolk and Western Tidewater.

The announcement was made at a Wednesday morning brunch symposium at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts with more than 100 stakeholders in attendance.

“We really knew we wanted to take a broad look at what we were doing and had done for the past 10 years and determine if the same path was where we wanted to remain,” said Scott Carr, chairman of the board of directors. “We identified that area of supporting the youth in our communities and their upbringing … as a major priority.”

Earlier this year, the General Assembly made a nearly $6 million appropriation to the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. The money is intended for wide-scale implementation of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program, working with teachers to enhance the quality of their preschool programs and piloting the STREAMin3 (Science Technology Reading Engineering Arts and Math — Integrated Intentional Interactions) curriculum.

The Obici Healthcare Foundation’s $1 million grant will piggyback on the state money, supporting the pilot preschool extension of the readiness program, supporting the enhancement of quality instruction in Head Start, faith-based and private classrooms and supporting the pilot of the curriculum in public and Head Start classrooms, all within the Virginia portion of its service area.

The assessments of quality education will help preschool teachers improve their interactions with children to boost the quality of the programs, said Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education. Research has shown that children who come into school behind the curve make almost as much progress as their prepared peers when there is quality instruction. But, when the quality of instruction is not up to par, the prepared children still advance while the unprepared children make far less progress.

So far, 46 public school classrooms have been identified to benefit from the grant and this area’s portion of the state appropriation. They include 24 in Suffolk, 10 in Southampton County, five in Isle of Wight County, four in Franklin and three in Surry County.

That leaves 20 classrooms to be funded at private and faith-based institutions and Head Start programs.

“We do see this very beneficial,” Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney stated in an email. “It will affect all 24 of our Early Start (preschool classrooms), particularly the training that teachers will begin to receive. We are extremely excited abut this and look forward to implementation.”

Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Annette Beuchler said more classrooms will have the program in Suffolk and Western Tidewater than in the rest of the state combined because of the foundation’s contribution.

“There is going to be a greater concentration of those dollars in Western Tidewater than any other part of the state because of Obici’s contribution,” Beuchler said.

Beuchler said the first participants in Suffolk and Western Tidewater will be able to help shape the program during the initial 20-month period. Training is expected to start this month, while the program will not actually be implemented until next year.

“Because they’re being considered early adopters, they’re going to have an opportunity to do pre- and post-surveys to give feedback on how it’s working,” she said. “They get to be the ones that have a say-so if things aren’t going right. Western Tidewater is the only place that has the ability to test the full model in all of those classrooms.”

Delegate Chris Jones, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also spoke at Wednesday’s event about the funding from the General Assembly.

“I’m as excited as I can be for the possibilities,” he said.

Scott Carr, the chairman of the board, added that he also is excited about the long-term effects of this program.

“We can’t look back in six months and make a determination,” he said. “It will be 30 years before we see how this is going to impact our health.”

Carr also praised Beuchler, who he said recommended a community needs survey and learned of the preschool initiative before presenting it to the board.

“The little things are great and important,” he said. “But the large-scale, needle-moving projects like this are what we felt she was capable of when we hired her.”

Other changes in the foundation’s model are expected to include more grants in the area of improving maternal and child health outcomes and more support for nonprofit organizations through staff training, leadership development and other foundation resources. It will continue to make grants in its historical core areas, as well.