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LAMBERT, Miss. — Four months into this school year, veteran teacher Cynthia Gordon made a pleasant discovery: Her first grade students were hungry for books. Nearly half of her students were ahead of the national curve, showing an advanced ability to sound out words.

Gordon knew why. “I have kids that went to pre-k,” she said, as she glanced around a classroom covered in colorful student work on a recent weekday.

Quitman County Elementary School
Bayli Barnes, 5, reads in a small group in a classroom at Quitman County Elementary. Students in the school often walk to different grades to read with peers on their level. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Before Quitman County Elementary School in this rural Delta community started a pre-k program three years ago, only 38 percent of the school’s students were scoring at grade level on a national reading test.  Last year, nearly 60 percent of students were at or above the national average. The pre-k program, which serves about 40 children a year, is funded through a combination of private grants and federal money given to the school district.

The encouraging results at Quitman come at a time when Mississippi―the state with the highest rate of childhood poverty in the U.S. and a long history of lagging test scores―considers its first-ever voluntary state-funded pre-k program.  Nationally, pre-k is gaining momentum as well. President Barack Obama last week proposed giving states money for expanding preschool access for every 4-year-old from low- and moderate-income families.

While Quitman still has a long way to go to get all students performing on grade level, its story—and the experiences of other Mississippi districts with pre-k programs—illustrate the power of getting the youngest students off to a solid start. About one-third of Mississippi school districts have, like Quitman, found ways to pay for pre-k without the state’s help, according to the public policy group Mississippi First. Several are reporting promising results.

In Tupelo, a district that has used federal funds to pay for pre-k for more than 20 years, more than half of the African-American graduates of the early learning program scored proficient in reading when they got to third grade. That’s 20 percentage points higher than students who did not attend pre-k.

In Hazlehurst, a school system so underperforming that only 18 percent of eighth graders tested on grade level for reading in the 2010-11 school year, a pre-k program is also helping boost student performance. This year, kindergarteners who have graduated from pre-k outscored their peers in nearly every math and reading test they have taken.

Quitman County Elementary School
A pre-k student at Hazlehurst Middle School shows his completed work for the morning lesson about dinosaurs. Most of the students in the pre-k classroom are on track to meeting nationally recognized math and literacy goals, and are acclimated to the school environment. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

“Pre-k makes such a difference,’’ said Quitman’s principal, Michael Cormack. “Just having that additional year, that early year, is an opportunity [for kids] to get acclimated.’’

Nonetheless, there are limitations to what pre-k can and will be able to accomplish in Mississippi, along with some strong opposition from those who believe early education is best left to families.

“While it is tempting to believe government funded pre-k will help families and single parents, the long, sad legacy of most government programs is that they keep people poor, destroy families, and harm the very children they were intended to help,’’ said Forest Thigpen, president of the conservative think tank Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

In Tennessee, at-risk kindergartners who participated in the state-funded pre-k program performed significantly better than their peers on assessments, but the program still faces opposition from some Republican legislators,  such as Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville. Dunn believes pre-k wastes funds that could be better spent on such efforts as raising teacher pay.

Mississippi’s historic legislation would phase in financial support from the state for pre-k programs that meet state guidelines for teacher quality and curriculum. That means it will most likely help established programs that can more easily reach that bar. By contrast, Tennessee’s program, created in 2005, emphasizes providing pre-k to the poorest communities with the weakest academic results. Tennessee’s program now serves over 18,000 children.

Educators say children who have participated in Tennessee’s program are starting kindergarten with larger vocabularies and better comprehension skills than their peers.

But pre-k in Tennessee has yet to eliminate the achievement gap between low-income children and their middle class ones. A study by the Strategic Research Group, a private research company based in Columbus, Ohio, that has studied early education and school readiness across the country, shows that by the third grade, students from wealthier families performed better than low-income students who had attended pre-k.

In Mississippi, the new legislation calls for pre-k programs to kick in an amount equal to the state funding, each providing roughly $20,000 for a classroom of 10. Some pre-k advocates say the matching requirement will price out potential providers in the most impoverished areas where kids already lag peers elsewhere.

Quitman County Elementary School
The pre-k classrooms at Hazlehurst Middle School have gotten a boost from private funding, allowing them to buy new materials and curriculum for students. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Still, education advocates in Mississippi are heartened by the prospect of any state funding for pre-k, pointing to extensive research by James Heckman at the University of Chicago and others showing that high quality pre-k can lead to lower dropout rates, higher incomes, and reduced crime rates. Other studies show that what happens in the years before kindergarten can make a huge difference in children’s school performance later on.

Lessons from Lambert

The main road that runs into Lambert is littered with boarded-up buildings, piles of debris and blocks of abandoned businesses. Twenty-six percent of the population is unemployed and 70 percent of children under five live in poverty. Only 67 percent of the high school seniors graduate.

Pre-k now provides the first rung on that somewhat shaky educational ladder.

Originally funded by federal stimulus money, the pre-k program at Quitman showed so much success in preparing kids for kindergarten that school officials now earmark federal Title I money and private grants to keep it going. The Barksdale Reading Institute, an Oxford-based non-profit that has invested $100 million to improving literacy in Mississippi, helps pay for two of Quitman’s pre-k teachers with four-year college degrees, along with an experienced literacy coach.

The results are telling: Nearly 80 percent of kindergarteners at Quitman who received the early year of schooling are reading at or above the national average, compared with about 50 percent of their peers who did not attend pre-k. And the benefits continue:  More than 80 percent of the second graders who attended pre-k are at or above grade level in math, compared with just 47 percent of their peers who did not attend pre-k.

About 35 percent of the kindergarteners attended pre-k, where the pre-k teachers constantly assessed student progress on several national literacy tests; those who weren’t on track to meet their goals received small-group or individual tutoring.

School leaders would like to expand the program, but limited funds have made it difficult. In the meantime, the school has made improvements across the older grades, offering more professional development for teachers, encouraging educator collaboration, and adopting a new curriculum aimed at reaching students who read at vastly different levels.

“Now we do have something for everybody,” said Cindy Hale, the school’s literacy coach. “The kids know their goals, they know what’s expected of them.”

Revival at Hazlehurst

Unlike Quitman, Hazlehurst Middle School, a pre-k through eighth grade school located an hour’s drive south of Jackson, has long had a pre-k program. But a recent overhaul of the program has been transformative for the entire school.

Until recently, the pre-k classrooms looked like cluttered garages, filled with outdated toys and old learning materials. There was no curriculum and few routines. The two classrooms “were pretty much doing their own thing,” said Greer Proctor-Dickson, the school’s literacy coach.

In 2010, after years of abysmal test scores, the state seized control and asked the Barksdale Reading Institute to help. The institute provided funds for two new principals, a dean of instruction and two experienced literacy coaches, along with new curricula across the grade levels, building upkeep, supplies and other resources for teachers.

Proctor-Dickson and other educators set a priority of fixing the pre-k program starting in 2010, including formalizing the curriculum and tracking student growth. “Everything that’s in the [pre-k] classroom now is purposeful,’’ she said.

The kindergarteners at Hazlehurst have reaped the benefits. More than 45 percent of the students who attended pre-k tested at or above the national average on recent reading tests, compared to only about 35 percent of their peers who did not attend pre-k.

“It’s obvious to us when students come into kindergarten, who has had pre-k and who has not,” said Proctor-Dickson. “We can almost pick out of a classroom of students, based on how they’re functioning, what kind of pre-k setting they’ve been in, who has been in a structured program versus more of a daycare setting, versus nothing at all.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Southern Education Desk, a consortium of public media stations reporting on education issues in the South.

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