Building Children’s Futures

Three visionaries each set a goal to strengthen education – and their successes have helped thousands.

by KIM O’BRIEN ROOT
photography by ERIC LUSHER

One set out to prove that children raised in poverty could learn just as well as their peers.

Another wanted to start a school that would become an integral part of the community.

And another turned her attention to helping the youngest of children long before they even began school.

Meet Walter Segaloff, Chuck McPhillips and Lisa Howard: three educational visionaries who run very different kinds of programs. All three have pushed to make strides in education – not to earn recognition or glory but to do something for the next generations.

Segaloff was tired of seeing poor kids graduating from high school without much future ahead of them. McPhillips wanted to bring emphasis back to what he calls “faith-filled” education. Howard, who once struggled to find quality care for her own children, wanted to see preschool-aged children have a chance at academic and social success.

Along the way, their ideas became their missions. Their missions became callings, something to believe in, something to prove.

“If you have the opportunity and the ability to do something that’s going to help your neighbor, you then have a duty to do it,” McPhillips says. “It’s not an obligation, but an opportunity to do what you can.”

In the mid- to late 1990s, the number of Catholic schools across the country was less than half what it been 20 years earlier.

So it wasn’t a big surprise when Chuck McPhillips’ idea to open a new Catholic school in Norfolk raised a few eyebrows.

As a board member for the James-Barry Robinson School Trust – a Catholic charitable trust that grew out of a former boys school, now a residential treatment center – the Norfolk attorney had pondered the idea for a while.

Were the finances there to start a school and then keep it going? Would parents enroll their children? Norfolk had lost its share of Catholic schools over the years, some to the decline in population, others to suburban sprawl. Faith-based education seemed to be losing favor.

By 2001, a new generation of trustees was on the Barry Robinson board, and enthusiasm for a new Catholic school grew. The right people came together to make things happen. And in late 2004, Saint Patrick Catholic School broke ground.

In the fall of 2005, though the new school wasn’t quite finished, Saint Patrick’s welcomed its first students in temporary quarters. After a $25 million, 15-month construction project, the new building and campus opened in January 2006.

Now in its eighth year, Saint Patrick’s is going strong, with nearly 400 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in a handsome brick building on Bolling Avenue in Norfolk’s Larchmont neighborhood. In its fourth year, the school achieved full accreditation from the Southern Association of Independent Schools and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

“It’s done incredible things for the families, the communities, and the parishes,” McPhillips says. “It’s a place where, even though we’ve only been there eight years now, it’s hard to imagine it not being there.”

Saint Patrick’s is an independently funded private school, meaning it’s not run by a parish or diocese. But it is inherently Catholic, devoted to teaching students about the Catholic faith. About 64 percent of the student body is Catholic.

“At Saint Patrick’s Catholic School, we pray,” says Principal Stephen J. Hammond, who has been with the school since the beginning. “One of the most important things is teaching children how to pray. We worship – Catholic and what we call friends of other faiths – all together.”

The school uses a philosophy that focuses on the total formation of a child, with 43 student goals that touch on all parts of a child’s life, including spiritual and physical aspects, he says.

“We invite children to reflect upon and to accept in the manner that they can, at the age level and at the developmental level they are,” he says of the school’s approach to learning. “They freely choose. This is part of a decision-making curriculum. We guide decision-making abilities of children.”

Students spend their school career keeping a portfolio, noting their growth over the years. Inside it they tuck artwork, papers – anything they think helped define them as a person. At the end of eighth grade, every student gives a presentation to a group of adults chronicling how he or she has grown.

“You walk out of that room and think, ‘These are the folks who are going to run this town,’ ” says McPhillips, who attends the presentations. “You hope they’ll run this town. They are the future leaders.”

That’s been one of his goals all along – to integrate the school with the community in such a way that it’s building future leaders who will stay in Norfolk and raise their families in Norfolk.

McPhillips, 53, is a product of Norfolk – he attended elementary school at the old Blessed Sacrament School, graduated from Norfolk Academy and returned to practice law in Norfolk after college and law school. He’s a partner at Kaufman & Canoles and lives with Theresa, his wife of 21 years, in Norfolk.

John Tucker, a former longtime headmaster of Norfolk Academy who now serves as a consultant to Saint Patrick’s, calls the total formation schooling and the “journey” portfolio remarkable ideas and “an intriguing model” that he thinks could be replicated in other Catholic schools.

“I would dare to say there’s nothing like it in the country,” says Tucker, who spent 12 years at Norfolk Academy before retiring in 2000. “The students are just having an incredible educational experience.”

Service projects are plentiful – the 15-month-long Million Pennies Project helped children in Haiti, girls regularly chop off and donate their hair to Locks of Love and an on-campus garden is tended by the school’s youngest students. The garden’s harvest is given to the needy.

Public speaking is encouraged at every grade level – if a kindergarten student has a parent stop in for lunch, the child is asked to stand up in the dining room and introduce Mom or Dad.

Students also help lead tours of the school, speaking to small groups of parents and interested educators about what they’re learning. These “Snapshots” begin at 8 a.m. on Thursdays with smiling, uniformed students opening the school doors and wishing visitors good morning.

These student “legati” (Latin for ambassadors) lead visitors throughout the airy, two-story building, talking about what they learn and experience. There’s the dining room, where students sit in multi-age groups of eight in order to build relationships. There’s the gym, where they have physical education every other day in order to build strong bodies.

George A. Neskis listened to his fourth-grade son, George E., give the welcome one fall morning and told the group gathered how proud he was of his once-shy child. Saint Patrick’s, he said, “is exceptional.”

Neskis, a Norfolk lawyer whose parents are Greek immigrants, said he was nervous about choosing a Catholic school for his children, since his own experience was with public school. He quickly realized there was nothing to fear.

“We knew we had stumbled onto something really special,” says Neskis, who now serves on the school’s leadership board and is one of the parents who speaks during the tours. The total formation approach is not a gimmick, he says. “It’s just a wonderful approach.”

“I didn’t know what value-based education meant,” he says. “Whatever you take from it, it’s really about kids being changed as they’re being taught. It’s worth every penny it takes to send our kids here.”

It costs about $8,000 to send a child to Saint Patrick’s, less for grades pre-K through fourth.  But McPhillips says he and the board try to keep the tuition at a level that parents can afford. About a third of Saint Patrick’s students are on financial aid. After all, the school is named after Saint Patrick’s Church – the first Catholic church in Norfolk. The church was burned to the ground in 1856, and the suspects were thought to be part of a political movement that resented Irish priest Matthew O’Keefe’s willingness to let anyone, black or white, rich or poor, worship.

“We’ve done everything we can to keep tuition at a level where working class, middle-class folks can see it as accessible,” McPhillips says.

After finishing eighth grade at Saint Patrick’s, students head to other schools in the area – some to

Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School in Virginia Beach, some to Norfolk Academy, others to public high schools. The first class of graduating eighth-graders are freshmen in college this year.

McPhillips brushes off sole credit for getting the school off the ground, heaping praise on his fellow board members, on Tucker, on Hammond, on the many “community friends” who have helped through the years. “I got the lucky break to be able to lead it,” he says.

But he’s clearly proud that Catholic school enrollment in the Diocese of Richmond, which encompasses Hampton Roads, started rising last year after bottoming out a few years ago.

“I hope it’s not too immodest to claim that Saint Patrick’s, maybe, played a role in helping that occur,” he says. “Whatever skepticism there was about whether a Catholic education was viable in an old city like Norfolk, I guess we’ve proven it is. And that’s emboldened a lot of people to get behind it.”

Hammond, though, says McPhillips deserves his share of praise. From the beginning, Hammond says, “Chuck wanted the highest quality education that could be developed,” helping fund state-of-the-art technology throughout the school and emphasizing writing, languages, arts and music.

“Chuck has just been a gift for Catholic education,” says Annette Parsons, chief education administrator of the diocese’s Office of Catholic Education. “He’s just been a dynamo. A force for good in helping to ensure that families who want a Catholic education for their children have the ability to do so.”

McPhillips, who has no children of his own, says educating children was just something he came to believe in.

“I think about Norfolk and Hampton Roads and what roles these young folks are preparing to assume, whether it’s in religious life, or leadership in business, in government, or in the community,” he says. “They’re going to make this a better place for all of us, and sustain a city I love dearly. I’m a lucky man to have had this opportunity.”

From the start, Lisa Howard knew she might put herself out of a job one day.

At the time, the concept of Smart Beginnings – a nonprofit public-private partnership created to address the issue of children’s readiness for school – was getting off the ground. The organization would bring together business, civic and philanthropic leaders to examine why one in five children in South Hampton Roads was entering kindergarten unprepared.

“People would ask, ‘How can kids not be ready for kindergarten?’ ” says Howard, the group’s president and CEO. “It surprised everyone, but at the national level, research was coming out that told us learning begins long before that child gets on the yellow school bus.” The group seized onto research that showed that 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed before age 5. And that retention rates for local kindergartners – the number of kids held back – were at 25 percent.

There was a window of opportunity there – and Smart Beginnings stepped in. South Hampton Roads was one of three communities in the state selected in 2005 to receive a $500,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Social Services, matched by funds from the Batten Educational Achievement Fund. That fund was started by Jane Batten and her husband, Frank, the longtime publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, which publishes Distinction magazine.

With Howard at its helm, the group has spent the past eight years thrusting the issue in the region’s face – and doing something about it. It’s given grants to preschools and their teachers, worked with child care centers to make them better, and pushed hard to get greater investment in early childhood education.

The efforts have worked. Since 2005, the rate of kids starting kindergarten unprepared has been cut in half. Smart Beginnings figures that some 9,000 children in South Hampton Roads have been affected, attending child care centers where the staff has worked to make buildings and themselves better.

“When a child starts behind, they stay behind,” says Howard, who previously worked for Square One, another school readiness initiative. “It is so hard for them to catch up. The sooner we can build that foundation, the better off they’re going to be.”

For Howard, 41, her work has been personal. A former public school teacher and military spouse who took eight months off after the birth of her first child, she knew how hard it could be to find quality child care. She also knew not every parent can spend time at home.

“Most families require a dual income,” says Howard, a Pennsylvania native who moved to Virginia about 15 years ago and lives in Virginia Beach. “It’s just not an option a lot of times for parents to make that choice to stay home.  And those who are are making a great sacrifice, and they need to be armed with information, too, to help their children become ready.”

Getting the right information out there was one of Smart Beginnings’ goals, through a series of awareness campaigns and the implementation of a system that would rate child care centers on their quality of care.

Such ratings – done on a five-star scale, like a restaurant or hotel might use – are done in other states. Smart Beginnings made it work in Virginia, inviting child care directors to accept the challenge of shining a spotlight on their centers. Every star earned means a center is going beyond the minimum licensing standards.

The Quality Rating Improvement system looks at everything from the education and training levels of teachers to the height of the chairs and tables used by 2- to 4-year-olds and how the preschool rooms are arranged. Do the teachers interact well with their charges? Are there enough books per child? Do the children have access to computers? Are the children and staff diligent about washing their hands?

Today, there are about 100 child care centers in the program – about one-third of the licensed centers in the region. The centers are rated every two years, spending the first year working with a mentor to make the necessary changes to move them beyond the minimum licensing standards.

Simonsdale Presbyterian Preschool in Portsmouth was one of Smart Beginnings’ first four-star rated centers. It was also one of the pilot schools in the program, which made director Carol Wilson a little nervous at first. The state-trained person rating the school scrutinized everything from top to bottom, and a mentor worked with the center for a year. Wilson and her staff took advantage of the $10,000 in grant money that came from Smart Beginnings to make changes.

“They gave us all these ideas and gave us the tools,” Wilson says, showing off the brightly colored, kid art-decorated rooms of her 60-child school, which is attached to Simonsdale Presbyterian Church. “They gave us new eyes – logical eyes to look at the program. And we made some changes.”

With the grant money, the school, which opened in 1971, replaced its ancient playground and bought needed equipment for the classrooms, such as a digital camera, multicultural toys and “cozy cubes” – big, hollowed-out wooden blocks filled with pillows where children can go if they need quiet time. The school is full of hands-on activities for children, such as a workbench where children can pound nails, large buckets filled with sand and rice that children can play with, and habitats for live animals – a turtle and hermit crabs – that they can learn about.

“This old building – we’re not the most beautiful place on the outside, but on the inside, we do our best to make it attractive to the parents and children,” says Wilson, the preschool’s director for 14 years. “You can have the most beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, but if you don’t have good teachers, it doesn’t matter.”

With the help of a Smart Beginnings teacher scholarship, assistant director Cindy Brown completed her associate’s degree. The whole staff became members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and several teachers took classes at Tidewater Community College – as a four-star center, Simonsdale teachers must get 36 hours of training a year.

Simonsdale is now one of 12 four-star rated centers in South Hampton Roads, including Saint Patrick’s Catholic School. No fives exist in the state yet, because the guidelines are so stringent. A five-star rating, for example, requires all teachers in a preschool to have bachelor’s degrees – which are not always easy to get because of teachers’ salaries.

Howard’s pride in the schools that accepted Smart Beginnings’ challenge to improve is evident. In 2010, Smart Beginnings commissioned the University of Virginia’s Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning to look at the link between the quality of child care and how it readied children for school.

The study showed that children who attended a star-rated child care center that was mentored through Smart Beginnings were ahead emotionally, socially and in language development, and had overall higher-quality learning environments.

A lot of the preschool programs “were already doing great things for kids,” Howard says. “This was a matter of bumping them up.”

But Smart Beginnings – which exists across the state through 29 coalitions, including in Williamsburg and on the Peninsula – is drawing to a close in South Hampton Roads. By the end of 2013, four of the five communities here will have taken over what Howard and her group started, with the help of $500,000 challenge grants that each locality was required to match.

Portsmouth was the only one that did not accept the grant, but Howard says work in early childhood education there is continuing through organizations such as the nonprofit Portsmouth Reads. The rated preschool centers will stay in the ratings program.

Howard “has just been a leader in changing the focus, and changing the focus in the business community and in South Hampton Roads,” says Kathryn Jessee, who coordinates the R U Ready program in Chesapeake, which formed about a year ago and picks up where Smart Beginnings left off.

Throughout this year, Howard will work to ensure the transition to the localities. She’s already started working with a new advocacy group that launched in November. Elevate Early Education (or E3), chaired by Cox Communications head Gary McCollum, will focus on getting greater public investment for early childhood education at the state level – something Howard says is sorely needed. Howard serves as president and chief executive officer of E3, which hopes to fuel the work of early childhood education groups such as the Smart Beginnings coalitions.

“You don’t keep doing business the same way if you want different results,” she says. “But we keep educating our children in the same way and expecting different results. Our policies in our state have not kept up with the research. At some point, we have to have the stars aligning. And we’ve got to make strategic investments in our education system.”

For Howard, it’s bittersweet as she prepares to pass to the baton to others to continue the work in Hampton Roads. And while she feels good about the work that’s been done, Howard says she knows there is still more to do. A lot more.

“There are still parents who need to be educated about how important this period of child development is, there are still teachers who need to be educated and there are still early childhood programs that need to be worked upon,” she says. “There’s tremendous work happening out there, but there needs to be greater public investment to really keep that work moving forward and to really have the impact that we’ve been able to have here.”

Every morning at An Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News, teachers, staff, soldiers and sheriff’s deputies line the halls, ready to greet students as they file in. The adults grasp each child’s hand, wishing them “Good morning.” The students answer back, looking each adult in the eye as they move down the line. At the front of the line is often Walter Segaloff, an unlikely candidate who one day decided he would make sure at-risk children in Newport News got the education they deserved.

“When you shake hands with 750 kids walking through the door, you feel the love,” Segaloff says. “You look at these kids, and you say to yourself, ‘How do they cope with what they have to cope with?’ You don’t know if they’ve had their meal. You don’t know if they didn’t sleep in a bathtub because of drive-by shootings. You just don’t know what goes on. But when they walk in that building, they know they’re loved. For some of them, it’s the best part of their day.”

Twenty years after he started, Segaloff – who will step down as president and CEO on March 1 – has made enormous strides. What started as a summer program is now in two buildings, one for kindergarten to fifth grade, the other for middle and high school. About 1,250 children attend the schools, which require a contract for parents and students to sign, classes that go beyond the basics, an extended learning day, Saturday classes, and tennis instruction.

Most measurably, however, are the efforts the school has made to raise students’ test scores to be on par with those of other schools in the city and across the state. From the beginning, Achievable Dream, a partnership of Newport News Public Schools, the business community and Fort Eustis, has worked to level the academic playing field for students – the majority of whom come from low-income families in Newport News’ East End community.

The longer the school has a student – such as one who starts school there and finishes there – the better the student’s scores often are, says Kathy Edwards, the school’s chief operations officer.

The schools are fully accredited under state and national standards. Some 300 kids who might never have done so have headed to colleges or trade schools or the military. The graduation rates are “phenomenal,” says Brian Nichols, executive director of elementary school leadership for Newport News Public Schools. Walls in the high school are papered with acceptance letters from schools such as the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, ODU and Norfolk State.

“It is one of our highest-performing schools,” Nichols says. “It has a nice, upward trend at data when you look at the trend over the past years. You really see the perfect trend line you want to see, across the grade levels, across groups. They’ve done tremendous work, and it’s really paid off for kids.”

For Segaloff, the seed to do something was planted when he ran Virginia Specialty Stores, a women’s clothing chain that evolved from a store his parents started in downtown Newport News in 1947. His company ran distribution centers, and would hire 30 to 40 high school graduates each year. The jobs were simple – packing, labeling, loading up trucks. But when it came time to interview candidates, high school grads would show up improperly dressed, chewing gum and barely able to put together a coherent sentence about why they wanted a job.

“It always bothered me,” Segaloff says. “What a terrible injustice, graduating kids, giving them a diploma, and they go out into the job market and all they can do is flip a burger. Dig a ditch. What a terrible disappointment to the child.”

Then one Sunday, Segaloff was driving in downtown Newport News and saw three young teenagers on the ground, being handcuffed by police. The sight was “just one more two-by-four in the head to me.”

“I realized there is no American dream anymore on 25th and Jefferson,” he says. “It just doesn’t exist.”

And so began Segaloff’s mission.

He went to the Newport News Schools superintendent. He went to the military. He talked to leaders in the business community. He proposed starting a summer program, with tennis as the hook.

Years before, during one of his regular trips to Israel, Segaloff learned about a program there involving tennis. It was used as a way to bring recent immigrants – despite language barriers – together.

Segaloff thought the idea could work in Newport News. Kids could walk to a tennis court. They could hit a ball against a wall if they didn’t have a partner. And the start-up costs were cheap – for $35, Segaloff could buy a racket, balls and a set of tennis clothes.

Today, Achievable Dream tennis players are the mainstay of Heritage High School’s tennis team – the school next door where students can play sports. Some have gone on to play tennis in college.

After two years running the summer program, Segaloff asked the city for his own school and the Achievable Dream Academy was born. It’s grown ever since. Students in kindergarten through second grade come from the neighboring district, but students in the other grades are chosen based on their social and at-risk factors. Nearly 75 percent come from single-parent homes. This school year, about 60 children are considered homeless – living in motels, shelters or not with their families. From the beginning, Segaloff said he wanted “the tired, the hungry, the poor. We want the kids we can make the most difference with.”

Achievable Dream is a private-public school – it’s part of the city system but relies heavily on donations. There are seven corporate partners and some 100 businesses that provide instructors or financial help.

Thanks to sponsors, the school has a state-of-the-art science lab. The indoor tennis center is top notch. There’s a health clinic staffed by Riverside Health System nurses, and parents can take night classes offered by Thomas Nelson Community College instructors.

The Army has been a part from the beginning, with Fort Eustis soldiers at the K-5 school each morning, shaking hands, checking uniforms and working with kids on character development. The city’s sheriff’s department helps at the middle and high school.

Teachers teach a “what-it-takes curriculum,” says Edwards, the COO. Besides the basic school subjects, students have classes in formal dining etiquette, conflict resolution, ethics and “speaking green” – standard business English. Them, not dem; ask, not ax.

At the middle and high school, classrooms are named after personal attributes such as tolerance, responsibility, humility, honesty, trust and courage. Every morning, all students recite a series of “banners,” positive affirmations that they strive to live by.

“Proud to be drug-free.” “An Achievable Dream loves me.” “I am someone special.” “I am somebody.”

Students and parents sign contracts – among the promises, students pledge to stay crime- and drug-free and to not get pregnant or father a child. Parents pledge to keep uniforms clean and provide homework space. “It says a lot for parents who sign the contract and want their children to be here,” Edwards says. “We have some parents who are working two and three jobs, trying to put food on the table. They want the best for their children.”

Unlike a public school year of 180 days, students spend 210 days in school, with days that last 8½ hours. There are uniforms and dress codes. Field trips are numerous – to places students might otherwise not get the chance to visit, like museums, plays, even out to dinner. They can earn money for test scores.

When students graduate, they receive $2,000-per-year scholarships for every year they attend college. The money is provided by companies and families who sponsor the senior class each year.

John Lawson, president and chief executive officer of contracting firm W.M. Jordan Company, has supported Achievable Dream since the beginning. He and his wife, Paige, sponsored the class of 2007, providing scholarships for the 40-member class – and computers as graduation presents. All but two went to college; those two joined the military.  The Lawsons still send Christmas cards and gifts to their class.

“The program is totally unique to anything else,” John Lawson says. “I can’t think of a single cause that does more and accomplishes more than Achievable Dream does. It just seems to get better and better each year. And Walter is the reason.”

Segaloff, who spent much of his life in Newport News, sold his family’s business in 1992 and began pouring his energy into Achievable Dream, amassing a long list of service, citizenship and lifetime achievement awards along the way – including the Virginia Press Association’s 2012 Virginian of the Year. He’s lived in Smithfield for 15 years with his wife, Ann.

When Segaloff steps away from day-to-day duties March 1, Aubrey Layne Jr., president of Great Atlantic Properties, will take the helm. Segaloff plans to help organize the yearly Run for the Dream fundraiser.

Segaloff and Layne, who has served on the school’s endowment board, say they’d like to see its method expand to other cities – in 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the school “remarkable” and “a model for what every child needs.”

The school helped Shukita Massie.

Massie, 29, who grew up in the East End, started at Achievable Dream when it was a summer program, and she was part of its first graduating class in 2001. She went to college at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, to law school at William & Mary, and today is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Hampton. Her goal is to be a judge. She visits Achievable Dream occasionally to encourage the students to push for their goals. “Where you’re from,” she says, “doesn’t have anything to do with where you’re going and where you want to be.”