It wasn’t lions and tigers, but lizards and bugs at Rocky Mount Elementary School on Aug. 29 when Pamela Northam, first lady of Virginia, visited the school to discuss school readiness for young students.

Northam visited Yvonne Hodges’ pre-K class, bringing a couple of “close friends” with her. In preparation for reading “Bee-Wigged” by CeCe Bell, Northam let the students examine a couple of insects that she brought with her. While interacting with the students, Northam wasn’t concerned by a bug crawling on her jacket lapel and sleeve.

“My, this is a smart group you have today,” she said while students learned about cicadas. It was fitting Northam had bugs, as the class was learning words that started with the letter “B.”

The first lady stopped by other classes en route to see the pre-K students. In Jessica Pratt’s second grade class, she met a member of the lizard family — a bearded dragon.

Northam also let the teachers know how much they were appreciated. “Have a sweet start. Happy back to school,” Northam said as she wheeled a doughnut cart through the school, inviting teachers to step out of their rooms for a treat.

Early childhood education needs to be a priority for communities as 90% of the brain is developed before kindergarten, Northam said.

“Getting ready for school is not just a new backpack,” she said.

She added that the United Way helps with unique challenges and to “empower communities for them to meet their needs.”

United Way of Roanoke Valley partnered with Smart Beginnings of Greater Roanoke as part of a state grant initiative that seeks to strengthen early childhood care and education by providing each site with mentoring, staff training, funding for enhancement and a star rating.

Early Head Start for STEP Director Shirley Wells said, “It’s a partnership starting with willing people and a common goal of serving our young children.”

Franklin County Public Schools and STEP’s Head Start are at Lee Waid, Glade Hill, Sontag and Rocky Mount elementary schools. RMES was chosen for the first lady’s visit because of its location.

Lisa Newbill, principal of RMES, said it was an “honor” to have Northam visit. “She was so personable and grateful to the teachers.”

Newbill added that she appreciated Northam’s advocating for and leading the Breakfast in the Classroom initiative because it provided a relaxing start for the teachers.

Hodges said she felt that the visit went “exceptionally well.”

“The children were surrounded by 15-plus adults and they were very attentive, polite and they were on their best behavior,” she said.

To thank Virginia’s first lady for her visit, Hodges’ students prepared a sign for her that included a class photo, the students’ hand prints and a message: “Thank you for believing in us.”

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