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JACKSON – Mississippi will focus on boosting access to high quality preschool programs and increasing quality of teachers and leaders by 2020, according to a five-year plan released Thursday by the State Board of Education.

The plan, which was detailed by Chairman John Kelly at a press conference, also aims to make all students proficient in the state’s tested subject areas and prepare every student to graduate ready for college and career.

Kelly said that setting goals is crucial for the state. “We have to be clear about what academic targets we’re aiming at in order to help students achieve them,” Kelly said.

Advocates of early childhood education are surprised by new legislation that could bring state-funded pre-k to Mississippi for the first time. (Photo by Jackie Mader) Credit: Jackie Mader

To improve teacher and leader quality, the plan calls for a new superintendent evaluation process and more professional development for teachers, especially for low-performing schools. The department of education will also staff an early childhood department and create a review process for early childhood programs to improve access for the state’s children.

In 2013, Mississippi was the last state in the south to provide public funding for preschool. During the first year of the program, only about 6 percent of 4-year-olds have been served. The state recently missed out on federal funding for preschool, partly due to a weak application and a lack of commitment to serve all students in pre-K programs.

Related: Why did Mississippi lose out on preschool funding — again?

Mississippi has long ranked at the bottom in quality public education. Students consistently post some of the lowest scores on nationwide exams. The public school system has been chronically underfunded, which means many schools are struggling to pay for experienced teachers, buy supplies, and upgrade buildings. Since 1997, the state Legislature has only fully funded education in Mississippi twice.

The new strategic plan builds on recent efforts to reform education in the state. In 2013, the legislature passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act., which requires most third grade students to pass a reading exam before they are promoted onto the next grade. Next fall, the state’s first charter school will open in Jackson, and school districts across Mississippi are in the midst of rolling out new standards and teacher evaluations.

Related: Can literacy coaches help solve Mississippi’s education woes?

Kelly said while the plan is implemented, the state intends to continue to use the Common Core State Standards. The topic has sparked controversy in recent weeks as Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have both publicly denounced the standards. Earlier this month, Reeves said that the state should drop the standards, which set guidelines for what students should learn in math and English in kindergarten through 12th grade, and write new ones.

On Thursday, Kelly emphasized his support for the standards, which he said are controversial partly because of the name ‘Common Core.’ “We want the public to recognize that the standards that are in place are the absolute highest standards we’ve ever had,” Kelly said.

Kelly said that the new standards and the strategic plan together will improve outcomes for students. “We all have exactly the same goal, which is to strengthen all students in Mississippi so that they can reach their absolute greatest potential,” he said. “Quite frankly, if we don’t do this we all failed.”

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

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Kayleigh Skinner is a graduate of The University of Mississippi. During her time at Ole Miss she contributed regularly to the school’s publication The Daily Mississippian and city newspaper The Oxford...

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