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Report lauds quality of Mississippi’s preschool program

A new report released Wednesday says Mississippi’s state-funded preschool program, though small, continues to score well on quality measures.

The report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, says Mississippi’s program meets nine of 10 standards set by the institute.

Nationwide, states provide preschool for about a third of 4-year-olds, but Mississippi’s state program reaches only 3 percent of such children, according to the NIEER.

Mississippi is spending $4 million this year to finance early learning collaboratives — groups of public and private agencies in 14 communities — that provide preschool classes to 4-year-old children. That will increase by $2.5 million in the budget year beginning July 1, which officials have said should bring the total number of slots available statewide to 3,000.

However, Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright notes that when the state program is combined with public school districts providing preschool with federal antipoverty money, Mississippi reaches 16 percent of 4-year-olds.

“We have really been pushing for our districts to open more slots,” Wright told reporters Tuesday on a conference call before the report was released.

In reality, a large majority of Mississippi 4-year-olds spend their days being cared for outside the home, including in Head Start centers, private child care facilities and in small group homes. Mississippi’s strategy aims to include some of those providers in the collaboratives to help improve their quality.

“When I started my job in Mississippi, I certainly brought my passion for early childhood education,” Wright said. “I believe that high-quality early childhood education can level the playing field for children in poverty.”

Steven Barnett, who co-directs NIEER, said that if a state has limited money, it’s better to focus on providing high quality care to fewer students. Research shows that quality is a key measure of whether preschool is effective and large, low-quality programs have less benefit.

“Quality trumps quantity,” Barnett said. “There’s no point in giving kids a program that doesn’t help them. The key is to have a plan and a date certain by which you will serve all the targeted children.”

Barnett said three states meet all 10 benchmarks. Mississippi formerly met all 10 standards, but the institute revised its benchmarks last year. Mississippi has not yet met a standard calling for coaching and individualized professional development plans for teachers.

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