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The Hechinger Report is taking an extended look at why the children of Mississippi start behind and stay behind academically, often ranking at or near the bottom nationally in scholastic achievement. Mississippi is also the only state in the south and one of only 11 in the U.S. without state-funded pre-K.  Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation, has partnered with existing child-care centers to create 14 well-equipped pre-school programs in Northern Mississippi that are providing pre-kindergarten seats to every child in Monroe County. The cost of the public-private partnership averages $70 a week, but the program offers scholarships for any child who needs one. He also insists that fathers be involved. The Hechinger Report spoke with Spreitler after visiting his centers recently.

Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation, oversees 14 pre-kindergarten centers in northern Mississippi. (Photo by Kim Palmer)

Q: What has made the Monroe County program so effective at providing every child with a pre-K education?   

A: I think the thing that has made it so effective is that the program doesn’t fit in the normal domains of a high-quality early childhood education. If you look at how you define a high-quality education program, this is different. If there is collaboration with public schools, private institutions and Head Start, we create a community where a child can succeed. What we’ve done is taken a community, the entire county, and focused 100 percent of energy on improving the lives of children. We’ve tried to get everybody out of the child-care business and into the education arena with these young children.

Q: How do your centers differ from other Head Start or pre-K centers in the state?

A: We’re universal, so what happens is if you come to us and you can afford to pay, you pay.  If you can’t, you tell me you can’t. We don’t nickel and dime parents. We send books home every week that parents are to read with their child. One of our rules here is on the very first day of our pre-kindergarten, I want dad to bring that baby to school. Fathers have to be involved. We have classes on how to read to a child. We work very closely with the parents on math. We tutor 4- and 5-year-olds. If there is a child development activity or manipulative out there, we have it. We partnered with Pearson and purchased the OWL curriculum for the 3- and 4-year-olds and a creative curriculum for the younger children.

The weakest thing in [early childhood learning] in Mississippi, and the one thing no one is discussing, is the curriculum. The [state] curriculum [for early childhood] has two domains, math and language arts. What about social studies and science and social and emotional development and art creativity and reasoning?

Q: How can the rest of Mississippi replicate what you’ve done to provide universal pre-K to children, especially without the financial resources that you have?

A child in a Monroe County pre-k center uses one of the many educational games and toys provided by the Gilmore Foundation. (Photo by Kim Palmer)

A: The ability to provide a high-quality environment to the children requires communities to address the systems. We’ve had to address the weaknesses in mental health programs, the breakdown in the systems for health and well being, we’ve had to address family structure. There are too many needs outside of the classroom that aren’t being met. You’ve got to address those systems first. If you can’t address those things, no program, in my opinion, is going to be successful. Too many children in Mississippi miss the assessments: well-being assessments, dental assessment, eye exams, whatever it may be. They miss all of these things and then their lives are negatively impacted. Communities need to ensure that every child-care provider is aligned with the needs of the public schools. If there’s not that communication between the public school and child-care provider, child-care providers cannot have children ready for the school. Bring the community together around the child. Bring the churches, the private centers, the Head Starts, and the public schools.

Q: What does the state need to do to create a universal pre-K program and are they capable of it now?

A: At this time, we do not have the option of universal pre-K. I am very concerned that the pressure that’s being put on the state from various sources will force us into a knee-jerk reaction to have a program just to say we have it. Universal pre-K in Mississippi would have to adopt a model of collaboration [between] public schools and private providers. We must develop a curriculum that will allow those that want to focus on pre-K to be successful. [Other learning guidelines] have to be developed by the Mississippi Department of Education. Then, we need to focus on quality. We need to be focusing on training these teachers in child-care centers and in pre-K how to teach. We’re getting the cart before the horse. We have to get these systems fixed before we can do anything else with these children. They deserve that from us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

This Q&A also appeared on on October 4, 2012.

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