By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The path to a college degree begins in pre-school, a regional education expert said on Wednesday.
“To make a decent living in this country, there is a need to have a much higher level of education than we did 30, 40 or 50 years ago,” said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation. “It is just that simple.”
Suitts was one of five speakers at Northeast Mississippi’s first Early Childhood Summit, which drew about 90 education leaders, childcare directors and others to the BancorpSouth Conference Center.
Fifty years ago, Suitts said, a high school dropout made 61 cents for every dollar earned by a college graduate. That’s more than an individual who has attended college but does not have a degree earns today, he said. That person only makes 59 percent of what a college graduate does.
“If you have a college degree, even in a recession, you are far more likely to be employed and less likely to be unemployed,” Suitts said.
The best way to get more students on a college-bound track, Suitts said, is to equip them with high-quality learning during the first five years of their life, a period experts say is a critical one to brain development. He cited a long-term North Carolina study in which students enrolled in a pre-K program were nearly three times more likely to attend a four-year college.
“Taking care of young children is the most important economic development strategy Mississippi can have,” Suitts said. “Those of you who work with children need to tell people, ‘I’m not just building children, I’m building Mississippi.’ We need to get away from the notion that raising children is unrelated to economic development.”
Joining Suitts as speakers Wednesday were Lewis Whitfield, Lynn Darling, Danny Spreitler and Cathy Grace.
Whitfield, senior vice president for the CREATE Foundation, said Northeast Mississippi’s per capita income is 70 percent of the national average and that the gap could be closed if the region produced more college graduates.
With more than half of Mississippi children born to single mothers, Whitfield said, high-quality early childhood education could be the best way to overcome students’ uneven beginnings.
“I think it is time to get started,” he said.
Darling, the director of Mississippi State University’s Early Childhood Institute, spoke about brain development. She said children learn through action and interaction and that we must attend to the whole child, including needs to feel safe, socialize and build self-esteem.
“The experiences of the first five years really determine success in kindergarten and beyond,” she said.
Spreitler is the executive director of Monroe County’s Gilmore Foundation, and Grace – a nationally-recognized early childhood expert – is currently working as Gilmore’s director of early childhood education. Both talked about the Gilmore Early Learning Initiative, a model that partners with the local public school districts and one they said can be replicated by other counties.
Mississippi is the only Southern state that does not have a state-funded early childhood education program, and, Suitts said, “probably the state that needs it the most.”
With about a third of Mississippi children living in poverty, such a program would better prepare students for success in school.
A study showed that every dollar Mississippi would spend on such over the next 40 years, would have a return on investment of $7 to $12, Suitts said. The challenge, however, is that the rewards would not come during a politician’s first or second term in office.
“The political problem is simple,” Suitts said. “This investment doesn’t pay off in two years. It is a long-term investment. It also doesn’t pay off in four or eight years.
“We are faced with trying to find leaders who see much is gained in investing in early childhood over the long-term.”
State Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, was among those in attendance. Boyd, who serves on the House Education Committee, said he will take a hard look into state funding for early childhood education, but acknowledged such would be hard to find.
“I feel like the state of Mississippi should help any way it can, but we will be limited,” he said.
Suitts spoke about a model state-funded program in Georgia that costs 1.1 percent of the state’s total budget. Since it has been in place, he said, the state’s fourth-grade reading scores have caught up to the national average.
Suitts also noted that during the last 10 years, Mississippi has spent $2 billion on students who have repeated grades.
He called that inefficient and noted that students in high-quality pre-school programs are much less likely to fail grades.
“You could get a lot of pre-schools operating in Mississippi for $2 billion over 10 years,” he said.