When Candra Nelson walks into Canton Public Schools' early-learning collaborative classroom, she sees what looks like a typical kindergarten class, except these are 4-year-old boys and girls. Sometimes there is a read-a-loud, and other times students are in small group settings, learning to manipulate letters and sounds, Nelson says.
Canton's ELC is one of 14 collaboratives statewide, and the school district partners with Agape Community Development and Friends of Children Head Start Center to run the program that provides public, free pre-kindergarten for 40 students. Public pre-K is a part of the state's push for early learning statewide in order to increase literacy for students in public schools. Nelson says pre-K is working for Canton students.
"We've compared our data of the students who attended pre-K versus students who entered from Head Start, from home or a babysitter," Nelson, the executive director of curriculum in Canton Public Schools, said. "And we did notice that those students who attended pre-school regardless of where they went ... at the end of (their) kindergarten year, those students were probable or transitional readers, and that's where we want our kids."
"So what does that say? The earlier we can get them and work with them, the sooner they can become readers," she added.
Four-year-olds in Canton are not alone. The data behind Mississippi's pre-K collaboratives back up Wright's conviction to ask for more funding. All 14 ELCs met the target scores on their state assessments, 2017 data show. Seventy-eight percent of 4-year olds who attended public pre-K collaboratives in Mississippi met the target readiness scores, indicating that taxpayer-funded pre-K works.
Pre-K is crucial for all students, but last month Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said pre-K is even more important for children living in poverty, making the push for early education crucial for Mississippi's next generation.
"Early childhood ... is significantly important for children that live in poverty, and in a state such as ours, that significance cannot be overlooked," Wright said at the Stennis Capitol Press Forum.
"In fact, in Mississippi, nearly one in three children live in poverty, and if you are African American and a child in Mississippi, your odds are raised to almost one in two," Wright said.
"So when you've got that level of poverty, being able to provide access to a high-quality early-childhood education is significant because it's an equity issue. We need to make sure all of our children are learning."
The 2017 Mississippi Kids Count data show that half of Mississippi kids are not attending preschool, and by the time they get to fourth grade, 74 percent of students are not proficient in reading. The Kids Count report suggests increasing the number of pre-K collaborative classrooms to have one per school district in the next five years "beginning where the state's most disenfranchised children live."
Wright is pushing for an increase in early-childhood funding and asking the Legislature to back up her request. She more than doubled the Mississippi Department of Education's funding request for early childhood education in fiscal-year 2019, asking lawmakers for $10 million versus the $4 million used to operate 14 publicly funded pre-K currently. That additional $6 million would allow MDE to serve roughly 2,650 more full-day students, MDE Communications Director Patrice Guilfoyle told the Jackson Free Press in a statement.
Pre-kindergarten is crucial for young students to pick up literacy skills before hitting kindergarten or third grade, where they must score high enough on reading tests in order to be promoted to fourth grade.
Assessments show that two out of every three children entering kindergarten are not prepared, Wright said, and now when parents enroll their kids in kindergarten, they must list where they sent their child as a 4-year-old. Children who attended a pre-K program, either private or public, were the top performers on their kindergarten readiness assessment. The bottom two performers were children kept at home and those attending Head Start programs across the state, Superintendent Wright said.
Mississippi State University researchers studied pre-K attendance in 2015. Researchers found that children who attended pre-K were 1.5 times more likely to be proficient at reading in third grade and 3.5 times more likely to graduate on time. The study did not address the quality of pre-K programs, just whether or not students attended. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded MDE a $6-million grant in December 2016 to provide professional development and support for teachers in pre-K settings around the state.
All of MDE's materials for curriculum and pre-K standards are available to the public for free.
This story has been updated with Candra Nelson's title: she is the executive director of curriculum at Canton Public Schools. Email Arielle Dreher at [email protected].