When thousands of students crossed the threshold of their kindergarten classrooms last week for the first time, they made a transition Pam Dowdy likens to passing the baton after the first leg in a relay race.
Later, they’ll have to pace their way through years of schooling and, ideally, a fulfilling and productive career. But as the longtime director of Smart Start of Wake County, Dowdy’s role is to ensure they aren’t struggling to come back from behind.
“Ultimately you win the race when that child is job ready, but the research shows us that if children start out behind, they’re likely to stay behind,” Dowdy says. “We’re there at that first leg, before they transition to the school system.”
Dowdy helped found Smart Start in Wake in the 1990s, and has since been a steady supporter of a singular goal – preparing children for kindergarten – that has many facets, from health care to quality preschool teachers and healthy diets.
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She came to Smart Start after years of working for the YWCA, and is active in other organizations, including East Coast Migrant Head Start, Women’s Giving Network of Wake County, the N.C. Partnership for Children and the Guardian ad Litem program.
Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes says Dowdy’s dedication to early childhood development has created a powerful legacy in the community.
Pam is the unsung hero that most of those kids probably don’t even know had such a huge impact on their success.
Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes
“She is someone who is not just in that job but is – from the bottom of her heart – concerned about early childhood development and spending her life solving that problem,” says Holmes, who helped secure county funding for Smart Start over the past two years.
Dowdy’s work is particularly important for children from low-income homes, Holmes says, who might not otherwise come to kindergarten prepared.
“That point in their lives is a critical turning point,” Holmes says. “It’s the basis for the rest of their education, and Pam is the unsung hero that most of those kids probably don’t even know had such a huge impact on their success.”
Helping others thrive
Dowdy herself had a less than ideal childhood. She was orphaned by an accident when she was only 9, and raised by her maternal grandparents.
She says her early experiences led her to make working with women and children her career.
“I saw what other children had and I wanted to have that same experience for myself and for my own children and family,” she says. “It’s how my work in this area began and still motivates me.”
She started out working at the YMCA in Akron, Ohio, eventually becoming director. Early in her career, she worked with low-income women on job skills, and was amazed at how important just a little support could be in keeping their lives on track. She also saw how their success could help their children thrive.
“When they had child care and health care, many of these women could be very successful,” she says, “but if they weren’t supported in those areas, if they had a crisis, it was like going off a cliff.”
When she moved to the Triangle for her husband’s job, the director’s position at the Raleigh YWCA happened to be open, so she applied. She held that position for 11 years.
Smart Start was the vision of former Gov. Jim Hunt, who saw a need to work more with young children based on research that increasingly showed that a child’s early educational experiences had a large impact on their performance in school years later.
Local entities were invited to apply for state funds through the program, and Dowdy was part of the group who organized Wake County’s effort. Smart Start of Wake County received its charter from the state in 1996. She served on the board, and soon moved onto the staff.
Now funded through the state and county, Smart Start is a nonprofit that promotes school readiness through child care subsidies that allow children from low-income families to attend preschool. It also provides training for preschool teachers and support for children with developmental disabilities.
Creating good learners
As director of Smart Start of Wake County, Dowdy manages 25 staff members and an annual budget of about $18 million, though much of that goes directly to child care subsidies for low-income families.
Much of what she does is try to maximize those resources with an eye toward helping more families.
A program her organization developed to use a single application process for several similar services allowed parents to find a better match with the services they need while filling out less paperwork. The state later adopted that platform as well.
You never know which child is the one whose life is going to be changed.
Pam Dowdy, director of Smart Start of Wake County
In another case, they found through surveys that a parenting program could have the same impact with fewer meetings. By cutting the number of meetings, they could open the program to more families.
For Dowdy, any time they can help another child is an opportunity to ensure one more student doesn’t struggle in school, and later in life.
“You never know which child is the one whose life is going to be changed,” she says. “When we talk about the thousands of children who are preparing to go to school, I keep it in context of every one of those numbers is someone’s child. Ultimately we want to make a difference for that one child and then we want the multiplier effect.”
Besides helping to manage subsidies, Smart Start helps train preschool staff in how to best educate children – not so much in their ABCs but in understanding the role of literacy and numbers and having the social skills needed to thrive in a classroom.
“We want to prepare them with a love of reading and curiosity and all of those things that create a good learner,” she says.
Such skills may seem basic, but may be lacking in some homes. Dowdy recalls receiving a thank-you letter, with all phonetic spelling, from a mother who credited Smart Start for her child’s success in school.
“If you did not grow in an environment where people read books, how would you know as a parent to do that?” Dowdy asks. “And if your parents were not successful in school, you don’t have the role models to follow.”
Among their most recent programs is one aimed at stemming childhood obesity with programs aimed at preschools, such as creating gardens, using more fresh produce from local farms and training kitchen workers to cook healthier foods.
The first children served by Smart Start are now going on to college – about to make one last pass of the baton, Dowdy hopes, to a solid career.
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Born: Cleveland, Ohio
Education: University of Akron, bachelor of fine arts/family studies with a concentration in business
Career: Director, Smart Start of Wake County
Family: Husband Robert; children Trevor, Jessica and Tecca; four grandchildren
Fun fact: Two of Dowdy’s grandchildren started kindergarten this year.