Virginia Beach, Va., launched its GrowSmart initiative in 2009, laying the cornerstone of the city’s commitment to an early childhood system that works for children, families, educators, and the city as a whole. From the beginning, Virginia Beach GrowSmart’s leaders and champions have kept a holistic view of early childhood. Nurturing school readiness in the first years of a child’s life, they believe, leads to economic vitality for all in the long run.
“Virginia Beach has been investing in early childhood for many years, and it’s increased in recent years,” said GrowSmart Coordinator Barbara Lito, who has been with the program since 2010.
GrowSmart was an early adopter of LENA Start, an evidence-based community program that uses LENA’s “talk pedometer” technology to teach parents and other caregivers about the power of early interaction and conversational turns. Since 2017, over 350 families have participated in GrowSmart’s LENA Start program.
In 2019, after being awarded a Providence Talks Replication grant, Virginia Beach GrowSmart added LENA Grow to its program offerings. LENA Grow is the early childhood education complement to LENA Start, offering practice-based professional development to teachers and giving them special insights into building equitable classroom language environments.
“The need to elevate the role of child care providers in the development of kids is critical,” Lito said. “I’m grateful we have had the opportunity to go in and support them during such a difficult time.”
The difficult time she’s referring to is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Even faced with unprecedented challenges, LENA Grow has taken off in Virginia Beach. In fact, they’ve doubled their reach each year for the past two years, now having served over 600 children in over 60 classrooms in three years’ time.
One of those 60 classrooms is that of Ana Kohlway.
“A program that teaches you to teach yourself to be a better educator”
Ana Kohlway says she had never really considered a career in early childhood education. Lots of babysitting gigs had helped pay for college, where she studied anthropology. And a large extended family had given her plenty of other opportunities to care for young kids. But it wasn’t until late 2017, after her work in construction dried up, that a friend mentioned the job opening at a child care center in town.
She started as a part-time assistant teacher, eventually working her way up to full-time assistant teacher, then full-time lead teacher, and now, full-time lead teacher and assistant director.
“I quickly realized it’s my passion,” she said. “My heart is just in it.”
Kohlway teaches at a child care center called Making a Difference Step by Step. The center’s owner and director, Brenda Soto, got her start in early childhood education as a family child care provider in Massachusetts before moving to Virginia in 2017. With a new staff to work with and new regulations to familiarize herself with, she said yes to lots of training opportunities that came across her desk. That included LENA Grow.
“It’s hard to train someone as an adult, but with LENA Grow, the teachers did very well,” Soto said. “You can see the difference where they’ve started to where we are now.”
The evidence lies in more than just comments like that. It also shows up in the data. Throughout Virginia Beach, children who began LENA Grow experiencing the least amount of teacher interaction saw their average conversational turn rates rise by a statistically significant 66%, eight percentage points higher than the national average. At Making a Difference Step by Step, the average increase was 109%.
“It’s not a program that’s there to judge the way that you teach,” Kohlway said. “It’s a program that teaches you to teach yourself to be a better educator.”
Coaching through a wide lens
What’s the why behind this focus on increasing adult-child interaction in child care settings?
For one, a growing body of peer-reviewed research has linked conversational turns to such things as improved social-emotional skills and long-term cognitive outcomes. In addition, participation in LENA Grow has been linked to improved job satisfaction and feelings of self-efficacy among early educators.
Kohlway can see why.
“You think of going to a training where you log in or you stay for a few hours and then you leave,” she said. “But with LENA Grow, it’s different. Building the relationship with the LENA coach instead of just being a number on a Zoom page was so impactful.”
Kohlway’s LENA Grow coach was Beverly Becker, director of Square One, a GrowSmart partner focused on increasing school readiness in southeastern Virginia.
“LENA is so powerful because we’re facilitating conversations,” she said. “It’s not about telling teachers what to do. It becomes an opportunity for them to guide their own teaching.”
Becker has what she calls a “wide lens” when it comes to early childhood development. She got her start in elementary classrooms before earning her Master’s degree, working on curriculum at the district level, and then working in remedial adult education.
“It was incredibly frustrating because it felt like we were putting Bandaids everywhere,” she said. “Seeing the third-grade reading issues and then working with people who want to go to college but can’t, and now looking at early childhood, it just makes me a believer in how important it is to give children a good start.”
Barbara Lito agrees.
“Investing in our youngest citizens at birth and continuing to do so throughout their school years makes smart economic sense,” she said. “It is an investment in our future workforce, and the early childhood years form a critical foundation for a child’s future learning and life success.”
A bright future for … Virginia Beach Talks!
The end of the three-year Providence Talks Replication grant period does not spell the end of GrowSmart’s LENA programs. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 2022, GrowSmart has worked to rebrand its LENA initiatives as Virginia Beach Talks. With the new name, they’re
focused on expanding their reach without sacrificing quality for quantity.
Now with three full-time staff members on board, Virginia Beach Talks has successfully launched the new version of LENA Grow, aiming to reach 40 classrooms annually. In addition, the LENA Start program is on pace to reach 125 families annually.
“I’m very proud of our city for its investment in early childhood,” Barbara Lito said. “This is not easy work, but imagine where we’d be without it.”