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Advocates of a privately funded early education program in Mississippi are asking the state for five million dollars to expand, in a move they hope will improve school readiness for children who too often start behind – and stay behind.

From left, Ms. Rhonda Winston, Davion Sims (in her lap), MeKenzi Stephens, Eziyah Robinson, Kimiyah Nuttall, Kaitlyn White and Eben Banks Jr. at Little Angels Day Care, which is part of the Building Blocks program. (Photo by Kim Palmer)

The request to expand Mississippi Building Blocks follows increasing media coverage of early education in Mississippi, one of 11 states in the nation, and the only state in the south, that does not fund pre-K. The program works to improve school readiness for children in the state with the highest child poverty rate, and some of the lowest test scores in the nation.

Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, which helps fund Building Blocks, said during a news conference earlier this week that money will run out before the fifth year if the state does not contribute. Former president and CEO of Netscape Communications, Jim Barksdale, told WLBT that this program is essential for Mississippi’s future. “These children are better prepared for kindergarten which means they’re better prepared to go on to school life ahead of them,” Barksdale said. “They’re better prepared to be contributing citizens of this state.”

Mississippi has more than 1700 child care centers in the state, but quality varies greatly. There are no consistent education standards, and early childhood teachers are not required to have more than a high school diploma or GED.

Mississippi Learning

The Hechinger Report is taking a long look at what’s behind the woeful performance of Mississippi’s schoolchildren, as well as possible solutions to help them catch up.

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Building Blocks has helped over 500 early childhood programs teach literacy and school readiness skills.

The program provides equipment, a research-based curriculum, and teacher training in 31 Mississippi counties. A University of Missouri study found the program had a positive impact on children’s skills and social emotional development, and children in the program, when compared to a control group, had double the scores on school-readiness skills assessments. The program has also proved to be affordable— since its inception four years ago, it has been sustained entirely by private funding.

Mississippi’s Department of Education has already requested an unprecedented $2.5 million in the 2014 budget request for an early education pilot program, but Gov. Phil Bryant has not commented on whether Building Blocks will receive any of those funds.

The Hechinger Report, via partnerships in Time and NBC News, has highlighted problems resulting from the lack of high quality early childhood education in the state.

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Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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