By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Eleven Mississippi collaborative groups likely will become the first to receive state pre-K funding.
Each has been recommended to receive grants under the Mississippi Early Learning Collaborative Act, according to the agenda for today’s State Board of Education meeting. They still must be approved by the Board today.
Among those recommended are two from Northeast Mississippi: the Monroe County Gilmore Early Learning Initiative Collaborative and the Corinth-Alcorn Prentiss Early Learning Collaborative. Both would use the grant money to add 4-year-old children to various programs and to increase quality.
“With these grants comes a great obligation,” said Gilmore Foundation Executive Director Danny Spreitler. “This is the first time Mississippi as a state is putting public funds into early childhood, and these 11 grantees will be torchbearers for what Mississippi will do in the first year.”
Passed by the Legislature this year, The Early Learning Collaborative Act provides Mississippi’s first state funds to pre-K. The state had been the only Southeastern state and one of a handful in the nation that didn’t spend any state money on pre-K.
The act provides funds to partnerships between public school districts, Head Start facilities and private child care centers. It intends to compel existing programs to work together.
The state appropriated $3 million – plus an additional $3 million in tax breaks – during the initial year.
“Pending board approval, this is sending a message that Mississippi is indeed working toward the improvement of the overall education for children and recognizing education begins before kindergarten,” said Cathy Grace, one of the state’s top early childhood experts and the director of early childhood education for Gilmore.
“…This will increase the level of education in a variety of venues, which is very good for parents and for children.”
Other potential grantees this year include groups from Clarke County, Coahoma County, DeSoto County, Lamar County, McComb, Petal, Picayune, Sunflower County and Tallahatchie County, according to the board agenda.
More than a dozen groups from Northeast Mississippi, including a coalition of the Tupelo School District and the Lee County Excel By 5 organization, were among those who in October declared their intent to apply. More than 70 groups in the state sent letters of intent, but not all applied.
The Tupelo partnership reached the interview round earlier this month but ultimately was not successful.
Advocates have expressed hope that the state will add early childhood funds in the future so more grants can be awarded. The grants will be funded over three years. The Corinth-Alcorn Prentiss partnership would receive $433,225 in the first year and $519,225 in each of the next two years. The money will be used to start a pre-K program in the Prentiss County School District, add a third pre-K class in the Alcorn County School District and enhance the Corinth district’s five existing pre-K classes.
Two Head Start facilities and five private child care facilities in Alcorn County also belong to the partnership. Collectively, the group is serving 233 students, and the grant will allow them to reach another 60 to 80 4-year-olds, said Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress.
It also will provide materials, supplies, training and personnel.
“We are cautiously optimistic that the board will approve the MDE’s recommendation that our early learning collaborative be awarded this grant,” Childress said. “…These funds can allow us to make dramatic improvements in these programs and hopefully provide greater numbers of students with a quality pre-K experience that will benefit them in their future education.”
The Gilmore collaborative includes a partnership between the Gilmore Early Learning Initiative, the Monroe County and Amory school districts, local Head Start centers, private centers and Itawamba Community College. It is scheduled to receive $174,210 in the first year, $501,247 in year two and $466,236 in year three.
Those funds would allow the collaborative to serve an additional 60 to 100 children, expand speech therapy services, require all teachers of 4-year-old classes to hold a bachelor’s degree and implement the early-learning curriculum developed by the state, among other services.