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Davenport grant leading to improved early childhood teacher training

Lisa Mullins didn’t plan to go into early childhood education when she left her job at a Department of Defense-run factory in 2014. She quit because she simply wanted more time to spend with her kids.

“I missed the field trips. I missed holidays. I missed all the stuff,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on because I worked long hours.”

Soon after, however, Mullins became a substitute teacher at Henry Elementary School in Franklin County, where her children attended school. A year later, she was offered a paraprofessional position with the school’s pre-K program. Becoming a paraprofessional, Mullins said, allowed her to spend more time with her children before they moved on to middle school. It also helped her discover a passion for early childhood development.

“After working there for a while, you kind of figure out which age group you like,” Mullins said. “The little ones were my favorite.”

Since then, Mullins has worked hard to obtain additional training that could benefit her students. She’s earned both a Career Studies Certificate and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Early Childhood Education from Virginia Western Community College. She’s also pursuing a Bachelor’s of Independent Study degree at James Madison University, which will allow her to instruct pre-K through third grade classes in Virginia. Eventually, Mullins said, she hopes to become a teacher, something that wouldn’t have been possible without the financial support of the Davenport Institute for Early Childhood Development.

“I worked in a factory for 15 years and made probably three to four times what I make now. When you take that much of a pay cut, there’s no way you can fund yourself to go back to school,” Mullins said. “Davenport offering the money is the only reason I chose to go back. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.”

Founded by Ben Davenport, a Pittsylvania County businessman and entrepreneur, and his wife, Betty, the Davenport Institute aims to improve the quality of early childhood education in Southwest Virginia. Upon its launch in 2016, Ben Davenport seeded the institution with $1 million, which has been used to create a program in partnership with the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education and Virginia’s Community Colleges. That program invites teachers who work with young children aged 0-5, like Mullins, to pursue low- or no-cost certificates and degrees in early childhood education from four area community colleges: Virginia Western, Danville Community College, New River Community College and Patrick Henry Community College.

Kim Gregory, who serves as director of the Davenport Institute, said that the Davenports have always cared deeply about childhood development and education in the region. Through his work with the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, however, Ben Davenport has especially become concerned about the availability of affordable, quality childcare in Southwest and rural Virginia. In the Commonwealth, private early childhood programs are not required to hire staff with a specific level of educational attainment, meaning that some employees have received no formal education on child development or teaching strategies for young children.

“If it’s privately funded, a private childcare program or a faith-based program, there are no minimal teacher education qualification guidelines,” Gregory said. “And since more children in Virginia are served in private early childhood programs, most children are in classrooms with underqualified teachers. Our youngest children need and deserve better. This is a critical time in their brain development and school readiness.”

The program, which is now entering its third year, covers the costs of tuition and educational materials for applicants who are already working in early childhood education. Funds are provided after a participant has applied for federal financial aid and for two related scholarships that fund early childhood education in Virginia — one offered through Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s Project Pathfinders program and the other through the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Through funding from the Davenport Institute, students can earn either a Career Studies Certificate in early childhood development or a similar certificate with an emphasis in infant and toddler care. Both courses require the completion of six courses, meaning most students finish the program in three semesters.

In addition to covering educational costs, the Davenport Institute provides students with job coaching and mentoring opportunities. The program makes it easy for students to apply what they’re learning in real time; during some portions of the program, faculty members observe students in their classrooms and come up with strategies for improving their educational techniques.

So far, Gregory said, 42 students have served as Davenport Scholars; 11 have graduated. Those graduates can then apply, as Mullins did, to become a Davenport Fellow. The courses they took during their certificate programs can be used during the fellowship to complete an associate degree at one of the participating colleges. Participation is not limited to paraprofessionals and other entry-level positions in early childhood education; directors are also encouraged to participate.

When the Davenport Institute hosted its first cohort in 2017, Virginia Western Davenport Navigator Sue Clark said that the program had to reach out proactively to early childhood programs in hopes of recruiting participants. Now, she said, programs are starting to inquire about how they can get their employees involved.

“A lot of times we’ll get a call asking me to come and present the program to a group of teachers,” she said. “And sometimes it’s just an email saying, ‘Will you reach out to this teacher? They’re interested.’ “

In addition to guiding her to a teaching career, Mullins said the certificate and associate degree programs have allowed her to become a better parent. Her courses have given her a better understanding of what the world is like for small children and granted her more patience at home.

“When you’re the parent that is here in the afternoon to cook supper and put the kids to bed, that’s all you see. You don’t understand how to respond to the kids. It’s just cut and dry,” she said. “Through all this schooling that I’ve gotten, it’s kind of helped me form a better relationship with my own kids.”

Mullins said the program has also given her confidence in her ability as an adult learner, as well as earned her the respect and admiration of her employers.

“I’m told every day how proud they are,” she said. “They know I’m making a good impression on my children because I’m setting an example. And it’s a good feeling to be my age, to go back to school and be successful and all that.”

Virginia Western Singers announce spring and summer show schedule

The Virginia Western Singers announce a new slate of Spring and Summer concerts that are open to the public at area churches, beginning this Sunday for Mother’s Day.

The Virginia Western Singers is a group of nine singers who perform pop, country, rock, show tune and a Capella styles of music. The Singers travel throughout the Roanoke area serving as representatives for the college and lending their talents for many events in the area. The group began with auditions in September, they performed nine Christmas shows in December, they opened their spring concert series with a performance for over 1,000 people during the New Horizons conference at Hotel Roanoke and hosted a spring concert at Virginia Western.

The group will have three public performances at community churches around the Roanoke area. This Sunday, May 12, the group will perform a Mother’s Day Show of songs that honor mothers, along with some special worship songs, at 10 a.m. at the First Wesleyan Church on 3706 Peters Creek Rd. in Roanoke.

On May 26, the Singers will perform at 10:30 a.m. at Rosalind Hills Baptist Church on 2712 Brandon Ave. in Roanoke. For Memorial Day weekend, some music will be performed to honor the memory of our fallen veterans and loved ones.

Finally, on June 23, the group will perform at East End Baptist Church at 11 AM. East End is located at 1030 Mecca Street in Roanoke.

The public is invited to attend one of these concerts at area churches. The Singers will also be performing for private events at Hunting Hills Country Club and Virginia Western.

Chef Polfelt awarded Endowed Teaching Chair

The Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation has awarded the Donald G. Smith Endowed Teaching Chair to Ted Polfelt, an award-winning local chef and instructor in the Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program.

The Donald G. Smith Endowed Teaching Chair is intended to honor an outstanding Virginia Western instructor who advances the understanding of business management principles in his or her coursework, regardless of academic discipline. The honored teacher may use the funds to enhance the quality of his or her curriculum, facilities or instruction in any way he or she deems necessary.

Polfelt plans to host a culinary competition and educational seminar at Virginia Western that will give students the opportunity to compete in a professional-level “culinary salon” without the cost of travel. The competition would be open to students and culinary professionals alike, and draw on judges sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation (ACF).

The endowed chair is named for the late Don Smith, who led Roanoke Electric Steel and was a Director Emeriti of the Educational Foundation. Steel Dynamics Inc., formerly Roanoke Electric Steel, established the endowed chair in 2006 with a $100,000 gift to honor Smith’s longtime leadership. Smith was president of Roanoke Steel from 1985 to 2004 and worked for the company 49 years.

Polfelt said instructors in the Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program “literally apply business management principles into everything we do. We talk about utilizing every piece of animal or vegetable to maximize profits, as well as how to maintain your professional appearance to separate yourself in the job market.”

Acquiring business management skills early in a hospitality industry career is critical, Polfelt said. Too often, talented culinary students don’t understand the importance of maintaining core costs such as labor, food and rental. He offers, as an example, the idea of opening a coffee shop. “It sounds like a great business plan: Cheap to produce, low labor costs and great cost margins. But how many cups do you have to sell to cover your $2,000 lease and the rest of the expenditures?

“I like seeing the ‘A-ha’ moment in our students, when the picture of entrepreneurship becomes a little bit clearer,” he said.

The Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program is housed in newly expanded space at the Claude Moore Educational Complex, which is part of the Roanoke Higher Education Center in the historic Gainsboro neighborhood. The program currently enrolls 308 students who are pursuing an Associate of Applied Science degree. Polfelt has been an instructor in the program since 2012.

“Ted’s project proposal is a creative and interactive way to marry our student’s culinary college tutelage with real-world experience and skills,” said Yvonne Campbell, Dean of Virginia Western’s School of Business, Technology & Trades. “He has smartly structured the project event agenda so that the experience increases student exposure to business principles employed in culinary arts at a level experienced by few.

“Seeing firsthand practical application of entrepreneurship by talented, dedicated experts is an important career and life lesson, and, honestly, can be life-changing for many of our students.”

Polfelt’s endowed chair appointment spans the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years. He is the third recipient of the Donald G. Smith Endowed Teaching Chair, following Alexander Scott, an associate professor of Spanish, and Cristin Barrett, an assistant professor of mathematics.

Polfelt previously was named the 2016 ACF Southeast Region Chef of the Year and was a semi-finalist for National Chef of the Year. He has also won more than 20 medals competing in ACF-sanctioned competitions across the country. He is currently the Vice President of the Southwest Virginia Chapter and is the Chair of the National Certification Commissions Appeals Sub-Committee. He also serves as Corporate Chef for Jefferson Street Management Group.