Pre-K bill could boost area programs

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The pre-kindergarten bills being considered by the Mississippi Legislature could benefit existing programs in Northeast Mississippi.
Both Senate Bill 2395 and House Bill 781 would provide state funding to local collaborative groups focused on early childhood education. Each bill already has passed its respective chamber’s education committee.
They call for representatives of private child care centers, public schools, Head Start programs and nonprofit groups to work together to apply for funding that could benefit each of the diverse groups.
Priority would be given to communities that already have had successful collaborative early-childhood programs and to those who display need, said Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First. Need could include low numbers of students enrolled in programs or lack of success of local public schools.
“We feel in the first phase, the best chance for success is to give funds to programs that already have the foundation on which to build, and we can learn from them what to do in the next phase of the program,” said Canter, whose organization helped draft the Senate’s bill, along with Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula.
Canter said Northeast Mississippi has several successful pre-K models that would be competitive for such grants. In fact, Monroe County’s Gilmore Early Learning Initiative was written into both bills as an example of existing collaborative models, as were Excel By 5 and Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK).
Six Northeast Mississippi communities are currently participating in Excel By 5, which provides guidelines to communities to support children from birth to age 5. Those include Lee County, West Point, Oktibbeha County, Lafayette County, New Albany-Union County and Corinth-Alcorn County.
“This is a tremendous bill because of its collaborative approach,” said Gilmore Foundation Executive Director Danny Spreitler.
The Gilmore program is currently in the Monroe County and Amory school districts. Additional funding could help expand it into Aberdeen and possibly Nettleton, Spreitler said. It also could help increase early intervention services, he said.
Lecia Stubblefield, certification manager for New Albany-Union County Excel By 5, said the community could use state money for additional supplies, training of teachers and scholarships for students.
Canter also noted the strength of pre-kindergarten programs in the Tupelo and Corinth school districts. Each could be strong candidates for funding by partnering with other nearby providers to write an application, she said.
Tupelo’s Early Childhood Education Center currently educates 260 children, a little more than half of the district’s typical kindergarten class size. The district has publicly expressed plans to expand that program, which is currently funded by federal dollars whose amount can vary from year to year.
State funding would provide extra stability and could also allow the program to add classrooms, said Tupelo Federal Programs Director Dale Warriner, who oversees the district’s program.
“The Tupelo Public School District Board of Trustees has continued to place early childhood education as a top priority for over 20 years,” said Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden. “Hopefully, this bill is a positive step toward Mississippi funding a state-wide pre-K program and ensuring our children are academically prepared for kindergarten.”
The bill offers flexibility in how the money could be spent, Canter said.
The legislature also will consider additional pre-kindergarten measures, such as providing funding for Mississippi Building Blocks and a Mississippi Department of Education request to provide programs in 10 school districts.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com