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MCCOMB, Miss. — With Mississippi officials steadfastly refusing to fund public pre-kindergarten at a statewide level, local leaders across the state have taken matters into their own hands.

early childhood education programs
Kindergarten students at Kennedy Early Childhood Center. (Photo courtesy McComb School District)

From the Gulf Coast to the Delta, school district leaders are cobbling together resources, partnering with community organizations and devising creative solutions to ensure their youngest students get off to a solid start. Biloxi and Pascagoula have embraced Excel by 5, a privately funded effort that helps communities boost educational opportunities for the littlest learners. Gulfport business leaders have come together in recent years to sponsor two pre-k classrooms. And in the McComb district, officials have brought several different early childhood programs under one roof to improve collaboration.

The proposed education budget released last week by Gov. Phil Bryant included no money for new public pre-k programs, meaning Mississippi will likely continue next year as the only state in the South without state-funded pre-k.

But “there are more and more examples of local efforts by school districts,” said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. “Everyone realizes it’s such an urgent need.”

In McComb, considered one of the state’s leaders in this drive, such locally-driven efforts illustrate the power and promise of expanded early childhood education. [As part of an ongoing series about the state’s dismal education outcomes, The Hechinger Report has been highlighting potential solutions, particularly in the area of early childhood education.]

With more than half of McComb kindergarteners arriving unprepared for school, district officials felt they needed to shore up the city’s scattered, and uneven, early childhood programs. “Kids who come to us not ready develop early on this mind-set of failure that can be very hard to change,” said Therese Palmertree, the district’s superintendent.

Building on a commitment to early childhood education established by one of her predecessors, Palmertree sought a space devoted to the town’s youngest pupils. That way, she felt, children of diverse backgrounds and needs could learn together, and the staffs of different programs could learn from each other.

early childhood education programs
The Kennedy Early Childhood Center also enrolls infant/toddler children ranging from 9-15 months. (Photo courtesy McComb School District)

The 425-student Kennedy Early Childhood Center, created three years ago, houses the children of teen mothers (infancy through age four) through funding from the federal Even Start program; three- and four-year-olds with special needs  funded through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; infants, toddlers, and pre-school children of school district staff members, who pay tuition; five Head Start classrooms; and the district’s kindergarten classrooms for five-year-olds. The district allocates some Title 1 funds to support the center.

Nationwide, this type of approach has become more common as school districts mingle different funding streams seeking to expand or improve early education offerings.

McComb’s results have been promising: In the three years since the center opened the percentage of kindergarteners who arrive with age-appropriate math skills has risen from 52 to more than 80, said Katrina Hines, the center’s principal. Reading levels have been harder to budge—about half of the incoming kindergarteners still start with an inadequate exposure to letters and language—but Hines hopes that will change in coming years as well.

Like McComb, dozens of other districts in the state have found ways to bolster early childhood offerings in the absence of state funding. Some spend their federal Title 1 dollars, intended for low-income students, on pre-k. Others rely on Excel by 5 or Building Blocks, a largely privately-funded school readiness program that aims to improve the state’s network of child care centers. (Bryant’s budget included a proposed $3 million for Building Blocks.) A few charge tuition or solicit grants from foundations to create programs.

A recent report from Mississippi First, a non-profit education advocacy group, found that 51 of the state’s 152 school districts used at least some  Title 1 money to create pre-k programs. (This is not uncommon, but nationally only a small fraction of Title 1 money goes early childhood education.) Another 18 districts host Head Start classrooms on school district property.

Burnett said the Mississippi First report cast a much-needed light on progress in Mississippi’s early childhood realm — however decentralized and uneven it may be.

Different faces of collaboration

Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy group based in Washington D.C., said collaborations between school districts and Head Start operators run the gamut: Many are relatively superficial, existing in name alone, she said. But in a few cases, including in Washington D.C., Head Start and non-Head Start pre-kindergarteners attend the same classrooms together, using a blend of funding streams. A few Mississippi districts, including Tunica County and Benoit, use a similar blended model.

The partnership in McComb falls between the two extremes described by Guernsey. Palmertree invited local Head Start classes to share space when the center—which once housed the district’s third graders—became the designated spot for early childhood services. But the Head Start staff members are not employed by the district and the Head Start children learn in separate classrooms. Head Start’s approach differs considerably from the center’s other pre-k classrooms. It must include a health component, for instance, like teaching  children how to brush their teeth.

Despite these differences, teachers from the programs—who often work a few feet away from each other—have more opportunity to share ideas. Indeed, Kennedy staff members say Head Start classes in the building have become more focused on academics and data since re-locating to the center. Like their pre-k neighbors, for instance, the Head Start teachers have created “data walls” showing how many letters and numbers each child knows.

“They’ve stepped it up a whole lot, and are borrowing some stuff from the pre-k,” said Melanie Montalvo, the director of the center’s preschool.

Learning from each other

Children of diverse backgrounds and needs also learn together. In the district’s pre-k classrooms, for instance, three- and four-year-olds with severe autism start school alongside youngsters whose academic and social skills put them well above grade level. And the children of staff members learn their ABCs alongside the children of the district’s teen mothers.

On a recent morning in one pre-k classroom, three four-year-olds sat dutifully on the carpet learning how to measure objects and listening to their teacher read the children’s book Too Many Tamales. Just a few feet away, a classmate with autism wiggled and murmured incessantly.

A teacher’s aide took him out for a walk to help calm him. He returned a few minutes later with a wildflower for his teacher, which he offered with an apology for having disrupted class.

Teachers and parents say putting some of the district’s more educationally advantaged pupils (the children of teachers) alongside some of its more vulnerable youngsters can help everyone: Students with special needs learn socially appropriate behaviors, and regular education students learn empathy and how to get along with those who are different from them.

Teen mothers whose children started attending the center as infants said they were surprised by how quickly staff exposed their babies to more academic-oriented instruction.

Anishiana Harvey, a 17-year-old whose two-year-old son spends his weekdays at Kennedy while she finishes high school, said she had not expected him to learn so much so fast. But in the year and a half since her son, Bryan, enrolled at Kennedy, he has come home potty-trained, reciting letters, and parroting new expressions (his favorite is, “girl, stop”).

“He says a lot more words than I had expected at this age,” says Harvey.

This story also appeared in the Sun Herald on November 23, 2o12.

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