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Mississippi education
Credit: Jackie Mader

Mississippi has plans to revamp its early childhood education system in the new year with a flurry of changes, including launching an online platform to streamline and track services that children and families are receiving from the state and shuffling around or creating new programs to support and raise the quality of child care centers. The changes were announced at last week’s State Early Childhood Advisory Council of Mississippi (SECAC) meeting, which featured an appearance by Gov. Phil Bryant.

Here’s an overview of the major changes hitting early childhood:

Family tracking system:

A new online system, which is slated to launch by the middle of next year, will help several state agencies identify gaps in assistance for families. The designers of the system say it will make it easier for different agencies to communicate with each other to ensure families are receiving support in several areas. Agencies and programs, including Medicaid, the Department of Education and the Department of Human Services, will be able to refer families and children in need to other agencies and programs. An example given at the SECAC meeting was that the Department of Health may refer a child to a specific child care center and employees at that center may see that the child has special needs and refer that child for state services via the online platform. (The “point of entry” for the system will be when parents sign up online for child care assistance, so it will be interesting to see how the state ensures that parents, especially those in rural or low-income homes, have access to computers and the Internet to apply.) Laurie Smith, education policy advisor at the Office of the Governor, said at the SECAC meeting that the system is “designed to take a holistic approach to the life of a child.” In the past, without these agencies being connected, “services were lost,” Smith said, and “gaps might not have been caught.”

Child care center support and employee training:

Smith also announced that there will be changes to the support network for Mississippi’s child care centers. The state’s community colleges will take over Mississippi’s resource and referral centers, which allow families and child care centers to borrow educational supplies for children. The community colleges will also launch an “early childhood academy,” which will provide professional development, in-center training and coaching for child care centers. No information was given on who the coaches will be, except one official said the coaches will not be current community college employees. (The Early Years Network, which is being shuttered this month, has handled these services for several years.) It’s unclear how centers will receive support and resources before this new system is up and running.

New child care quality program:

Finally, the state will launch a new, voluntary program to measure the quality of child care centers and reward high-quality centers with additional state funding. The Early Years Network has administered the state’s current quality program for several years. That program, the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) will end this month. The new program will categorize child care centers as “standard” or “comprehensive” centers. A handout from the November SECAC committee meeting and a report released last week by SECAC included one SECAC committee’s recommendations that standard centers meet the regular state licensing requirements as well as a few new, more comprehensive requirements, like ensuring all teaching staff have a Child Development Associate Credential within 12 to 18 months of hire. A source confirmed Tuesday that those recommendations have not been adopted by SECAC, but all standard and comprehensive centers will have to take new, federally-required courses that will be taught by instructors who have advanced degrees and will include an assessment at the end. Comprehensive centers will meet more rigorous requirements, such as giving student assessments to monitor child progress. Centers will receive more money in the form of voucher payments from the state if they are a comprehensive center versus a standard center.

The Hechinger Report and The Clarion-Ledger have investigated the child care system for over a year in an attempt to provide more transparency and information to parents. Here’s a look at our findings.

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