JACKSON — Cathy Grace wanted no part of kindergarten.
“My mother dropped me off, and I was not a happy little girl,” she recalls.” The woman at the kindergarten locked the screen door, but I wound up tearing it off. I wanted out of there.”
Strangely enough, her passion turned out to be teaching others the importance of early childhood education — getting children into kindergarten and instilling the basics needed to enter first grade on the fast track to a productive life.
Grace, 60, will be honored Sept. 21 as the 2009 Winter-Reed Award recipient for her lifelong contributions to public education. The award is named in honor of former Gov. William Winter and Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr. and is presented annually by the Mississippi Association of Partners in Education.
“In my opinion, we would not have public kindergarten today in Mississippi if Cathy Grace had not provided the inspiration and understanding of the need for kindergartens when I was governor (1980-84),” Winter said. “I was for kindergarten but never fully appreciated how valuable it was until Cathy continued to educate me. Along with that, she educated many members of the Legislature, many civic leaders and the general public.
“People forget, but kindergarten was a very controversial subject at the time. People really didn’t understand why it was necessary to take children out of their mothers’ arms and send them off to some school at the age of 5. But when we started looking around and saw that Mississippi was the only state in the country that didn’t have a single state-supported kindergarten … that’s when we got busy. That’s when Cathy launched her crusade.”
Today, each Mississippi school district is required to offer kindergarten for 5-year-old students. But parents are not obligated to enroll them. Grace wants that changed.
As director of Mississippi State University’s Early Childhood Institute, she has worked to help create positive educational environments throughout the state — at home and at daycare centers for children birth to 5.
“People are sometimes surprised when I say it starts at home, but when children don’t receive adequate health care, when their environments are not stable because of a lack of income, when their brains are not being stimulated, it causes problems.
“Through studies released in the past 10 years, there is medical evidence that stimulating environments in the first three, five, eight years of a child’s life are critical for brain development.
“It’s no longer just eat Wonder bread and drink your milk. It’s do that, plus exercise your brain. That comes from good nutrition, a relationship early on in a child’s life from someone who pays attention to them in a positive way, and things as simple as talking, reading and singing to a child at a very early age,” Grace said.
Statistics reveal few children in Mississippi are taking advantage of programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start, which provide early education opportunities to low-income children and their families. Only 3 percent of eligible infants and young children (birth to 3) and just 66 percent of eligible children ages 3 to 5 are enrolled in Head Start.
Alternatives have been developed, such as Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) through the Mississippi Children’s Defense Fund and the Excel by 5, a program started by Chevron with the help of Grace and others.
Studies show Mississippians lagging behind the rest of the country academically. Seven of every 10 public school fourth-graders cannot read at grade level.
“We’ve still got work to do,” Grace said. “If the numbers stay as they are, it’s going to be more of the same, and maybe worse. We are not going to graduate children who can make a living wage and, perhaps most importantly, we’re not going to attract the economic developers that we need because we can’t offer the work force.
“This affects every Mississippian. No one is exempt from it.”
It comes down to investing in our youth, she said.
“Look at the states around us — Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana. All of them put between $30 and $50 million into early childhood education,” Grace said. “Mississippi puts $3 million — or the minimum required by law.”
Grace is on sabbatical from her position at MSU. She is in Washington, working to make sure rural Mississippians are not left out of the new administration’s education plans.
“I’m directing the early childhood development portion of the policy division for the Children’s Defense Fund,” she said. “I sit in meetings with some fine, highly educated people. But most are not from a rural background. I can bring field experience to these discussions.”
And she is not afraid to speak up, said Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director of the Children’s Defense Fund, which helps promote policies and programs in early education.
“Cathy is anything but shy,” Fitzgerald said. “She is driven. And I would be willing to bet that she has taken D.C. by storm. She has figured out where the conversations are she needs to be a part of, and waded in there boots and all. Truly, she is just what Mississippi needs in Washington right now — a great connector between the policy makers and the people on the ground who will have to implement those policies.”
Grace grew up in Neuhardt, Ark., a small town where her father, Raymond, ran a country store surrounded by cotton fields.
“I can remember in elementary school wanting to become a teacher,” she said. “I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
But at 16 Grace was pregnant and married. She worked as a lab technician at a hospital in West Memphis and took correspondence courses. She earned her high school diploma a few weeks before her son, Whit, was born.
“I think that experience clearly helps Cathy today understand what some mothers and children are going through,” Fitzgerald said. “Experience is deeper than mere conversation.”
The marriage didn’t last, but Grace continued to push toward her goal. Facing the challenges of being a student and a single mother, she enrolled at the University of Arkansas and graduated with a degree in education. She eventually earned a Ph.D from Ole Miss in 1979.
She taught elementary school in West Memphis and Cleveland before accepting a position on the faculty at Mississippi Valley State University. She was there four years. Met her husband, Charles, in church at nearby Greenwood. Had another son, Mason.
“I also learned how to write grants, learned about the Mississippi Delta and learned what it was like to be a minority,” she said.
She was hired by Winter in 1983 as the early childhood coordinator for the Department of Education where she led the formation of statewide kindergartens.
She went to work at MSU in 1999 — and she intends to return after her stint in Washington.
“There is too much Mississippi in me to stay up here,” she said. “And there is too much left to do there. I want to be a part of it.”
Billy Watkins/The Clarion-Ledger