A report released Jan. 26 by the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta says that Mississippi’s economic future is tied to the state’s system of early childhood education.
The report, which surveys data from 2007, finds that Mississippians had an average annual income that was more than $10,000 less than the average American’s.
Mississippi’s economy will not recover even after the current recession “unless and until most of its young children have access to a preschool program that prepares them to enter school ready and able to learn from the start,” said Lynn Huntley, president of SEF, a public charity that promotes fairness and excellence in education in the Southeast.
Mississippi does not have a public preschool program. Children cannot enter the public school system until their first year of kindergarten.
The Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI) has made early childhood education one of its priorities and is a partner in a collaborative grant program that seeks to raise money from private sources to begin a pre-kindergarten pilot program in 100 classrooms and 35 private childcare centers. Beginning in August, the program will place mentors in the classrooms for 20 consecutive school days to provide materials and to implement practices aimed at laying a strong early educational foundation for children.
“There will be a strong assessment component, there will be a strong parental component,” said Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, which is administering the Building Blocks initiative. “We’ll have parent coaches to work with the parents, we’ll have business advisors to work with the (childcare center) owners to operate on razor-thin margins because it would hardly help if we provided all this training and the (center) went belly-up.”
The program will have a $2-million budget and will work with about 1,000 children under the age of three, with the hopes that it is successful enough that the state will adopt the model and start to fund it. Reaching children early is the only way to prevent them from adding to the statistics in the SEF’s report, Barksdale said.
“Until we reach these children in poverty before they get to kindergarten, we’re just going to have a very poor batting average,” he said.
The Parents’ Campaign is a partner with BRI in the Building Blocks initiative. Early childhood education is a priority for the organization that advocates for strong public schools.
Parents’ Campaign executive director Nancy Loome said evidence shows that children who enter kindergarten under-prepared have extreme difficulty catching up academically with their classmates. Children who are not reading at grade level by the third grade, she said, have only a 10 percent chance of graduating high school.
“They are exponentially more likely to drop out of school, have interactions with the criminal justice system, to be under-employed, have very low incomes and rely on public assistance,” Loome said. “Those children do not have the same opportunities for the same quality of life that you and I enjoy.”
Children who enter kindergarten and struggle become frustrated and view themselves as inferior to their classmates, Loome said, while posing a dilemma for teachers who try to balance helping them catch up with allowing prepared children to accelerate.
“Nobody wants to go to a place where they fail every day. And people wonder why they’re angry and frustrated and disruptive (by the time they reach elementary school),” Loome said.
Overall funding of Mississippi’s public school system remains up in the air with the state’s revenue collections coming in far below estimates. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula that determines how much money each school district receives in a budget year, has been fully funded the past two years for the first time since its inception in the mid-1990s. Portions of MAEP in the fiscal year 2009 budget were slashed in Gov. Haley Barbour’s second round of cuts. By law, Barbour had to trim the current budget when actual revenue collections did not meet estimates.
“The comparison is when a business shuts down, the people have to go find work elsewhere, but when you start shutting down funding for schools, the kids still show up,” said Mississippi Association of Educators president Kevin Gilbert. Loss of MAEP money, Gilbert said, can mean loss of jobs, classrooms with an inadequate number of textbooks and higher student-teacher ratios.
“Our administrators have to make some very, very tough decisions,” he said. “It’s all going to impact the school districts locally.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org .