By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Lee County hopes to soon become the latest Mississippi community to join an effort that will help its youngest residents realize their potential.
A cross-section of representatives from throughout the county has been meeting since March about the possibility of joining Excel By 5, a program that helps communities support children from birth to age 5 and ensure they are eventually prepared to start kindergarten.
They plan to submit an application later this month to participate in the statewide initiative.
Excel By 5 sets various standards that a community must meet to become certified. It focuses on parent training, community participation, child care and health.
Lee County’s effort emerged from a project undertaken by Cheryl Wheeler, Beverly Williams, Hank Boerner, Taylor Sanders and Katarsha White as part of their participation in CDF’s Jim Ingram Community Leadership Institute.
“If you look at the research, you see 90 percent of language development occurs before age 5,” said Williams, director of finance at CREATE. “This would provide a way to educate both the parents and child care centers on what you need to do with these kids to prepare them so when they get to kindergarten, they are ready to learn.”
Certification generally takes two to three years to obtain, said Bob Clay, Excel By 5’s executive director. Once Lee County submits its application, it will need to compile a guide of early childhood resources currently available in the county and to survey parents, child care directors and health care providers about the county’s needs.
It will then work to address those needs. The process also requires communities to hold town hall meetings on the topic, establish a resource center and hold community-wide events and health fairs focused on children under age 5.
“We capture information about the community and about specifics so the events the community puts on can be tailored to those needs,” Clay said.
Thirty-five Mississippi towns, cities or counties are currently participating in the initiative. Nine have become certified, including Monroe County, West Point and Oktibbeha County.
Northeast Mississippi candidate communities are Lafayette County, New Albany-Union County and Corinth-Alcorn County.
“I feel like our people are our greatest resource,” said Wheeler, director of child care for North Mississippi Medical Center. “If we start when they are younger, we are more likely to have a more educated work force.”