By Callie Hietala
Virginia’s First Lady, Pamela Northam, visited Henry County on August 27, as part of her fourth annual back to school tour. Northam and her team, including Assistant Secretary of Education Tori Feyrer, toured the Career Academy where they met with students and faculty to learn about how students are being prepared to enter the workforce.
The annual tour, which over the years has taken Northam more than 10,000 miles across the Commonwealth and to more than 200 different schools in all eight of Virginia’s superintendent districts, has several goals. One is to bring first-hand experiences and stories from various schools back to Richmond to share with lawmakers, giving real-world examples of how legislation and funding are impacting schools.
“We work with our heads down” on the policy side of governing, Northam said. “So, it’s exciting to do the tour to see the policies and funding working and touching the lives of kids. We fight for it really hard all year, and then come out and see what great talented people are actually doing on the ground.”
Listening is a big part of the tour, too, and asking questions like, “what can we as a state do for you?” Northam said. “Each locality has great strengths that cater to their population, and each school and region faces its own challenges, from childcare deserts in Southwest versus Northern Virginia, where you have the challenge of fifty or sixty languages in one small area.”
Though the challenges are different, everywhere Northam goes she sees educators finding creative ways to meet those challenges.
Northam also uses the trips to discuss new initiatives and opportunities in the state, particularly in the crucial area of early childhood education.
“When we look at professions like (those the students are learning at the Career Academy) and we look at the kind of thinking that folks need to be able to do, what we’re finding out by research is that we have to look younger and younger,” Northam said. “When we deal with developing brains, in those first few years of life, 90 percent of the brain is developed before a child even gets to kindergarten. So, a lot of those mechanisms for problem solving and collaborative learning and the things that we’re using in these programs today start there.”
Most importantly, though, the back-to-school tour is a way to say thank you to those Northam dubs “superhero educators,” who work hard each year but especially during the last year and a half during the ongoing pandemic.
“Every time we learn something about this crazy disease, (the educators) would pivot and do everything they could creatively and courageously to take care of the students and make sure they were safe and learning through the whole time,” she said.
Northam’s tour of the Career Academy began outside, where she received a quick lesson in drone technology from a Magna Vista student. She and her team also visited students learning coding in the cybersecurity classroom, aspiring electricians working on old gaming machines, young welders hard at work in their shop, and even met some of the students (and animals) who are part of the agriculture and veterinary science program.
As she spoke with students, some of whom had made gifts for the First Lady, including an ant welded from a railroad spike and a 3-D printed model of the Eiffel Tower, she gave them challenge coins.
“In the military or law enforcement, when you do something outstanding, sometimes your commanding officer will give you a challenge coin,” she said. She developed and designed one of her own, with the seal and motto of Virginia on one side and a native species on the back. “I give them out to the children who share what they’ve learned and to folks who are doing great public service.”
“We are just so appreciative that she came here and expressed an interest in Henry County and Henry County students and what we are doing,” Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer said.
“It means the world that they know that fabulous things are happening here, because there are so many hidden jewels in Henry County that people just aren’t aware of, so for her to put the spotlight on career and technical education, and also talk about preschool and the needs of our teachers, it just means the world that people are listening and people are taking action to do what’s best for our students,” Strayer added.