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Playgrounds, like this one at a Jackson-area daycare, are one aspect of child care centers that will be checked more frequently by the health department this year. Credit: Jackie Mader

This is the 17th article in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

Mississippi is doubling the number of times it inspects some child care centers in an effort to improve the care of its youngest children.

Licensed child care centers in nine counties will get a visit from officials from the Mississippi State Department of Health four times this year, up from two visits in the past. The centers are part of an experimental program that is to be expanded statewide by July 1.

The health department’s semiannual Child Care Information Memorandum, published January 9, said the department “is expanding the inspection schedule” to help it “meet the national benchmark that recommends four (4) inspections a year for licensed child care programs.” It also plans to increase its staff by hiring for multiple positions, including a deputy bureau director, a division director and a dozen new child care facility inspectors throughout the state. There are currently 21 inspectors responsible for more than 1,500 licensed child care centers.

The health department will receive an additional $1 million this year from the state Department of Human Services to improve child care center oversight, increasing by half its budget from fiscal year 2016, which is $2 million. Inspectors’ caseloads are expected to decrease from a current average of 73 centers per person to 50 to 60 centers each. The health department will also use the funding to create a unit to handle complaint investigations and to build a career ladder within the division in an effort to retain employees.

Mississippi’s child care system has been plagued by low levels of funding and support for centers that struggle to meet regulations, as revealed by an 18-month investigation by The Hechinger Report and The Clarion-Ledger. Legislative action on child care has been almost nonexistent.

Related: Child Care Crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

Experts say that quality child care is vital for children’s social and academic development, particularly in a state where two-thirds of kindergarteners were unprepared for school in 2014, the most recently available data. In Mississippi and across the nation, child care centers, where many American children spend their early years, are underfunded and plagued by weak oversight. Child Care Aware, a nonprofit that tracks state policies, routinely gives the nation as a whole a mediocre rating. Mississippi got an ‘F’ in the nonprofit’s 2013 report.

“It’s going to make centers more accountable and will keep the good reputation for good centers.”

Only one child care system nationwide earned a B in Child Care Aware’s rating: the Department of Defense. Child care centers in that system are inspected four times a year and inspectors have a caseload of no more than 50 centers each. Tennessee is the only state to legally require four inspections a year and maintain a caseload of that size.

Mississippi could rise in the rankings if its new plan goes into effect statewide.

This month officials will begin by increasing inspections in Public Health District 3, which encompasses the Mississippi Delta. The department decided to start with that district because it already has the lowest caseload for inspectors, with a ratio of 54 centers to each licensing official, Jim Craig, director of health protection for the Department of Health, said in a statement.

Annie Rodgers, director of Happy Times Christian Learning Center in the small town of Winona in central Mississippi, said she didn’t want the health department to increase the inspections, although she said some centers may need additional oversight. “I really don’t care to be inspected four times a year; I would rather it be two,” she said. “I kind of keep everything together, so I don’t feel that it’s necessary.”

Other center directors said they were not bothered by the news. Desiree States, director of Magnolia Daycare in Jackson, said she understood the need for more inspections. “We’re doing the right thing, so I don’t have a problem with it,” she said.

Related: Mississippi to increase oversight of child care centers

The only downside, she said, is that inspections can cause a disruption. “It takes away from me doing my daily routine,” she said, such as cooking or standing in as a substitute in her classrooms. “That would be the only downfall of them coming four times a year.”

In Flowood, just east of Jackson, Camilo Torres, owner of Bright Minds Learning Center, said he approves of the increase in inspections. “It’s going to make centers more accountable and will keep the good reputation for good centers, and the ones that are bad centers…maybe it’ll give them more penalties or shut them down,” Torres said. “It’ll help prevent kids getting mistreated.”

Although the inspections are “time consuming,” Torres said more check-ins from the health department will help centers see if anything is out of place or if any guidelines or routines need to change so “a child doesn’t get hurt or an employee doesn’t get hurt.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in Mississippi.

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