Program promotes early childhood education

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

A new private initiative is working to help many of Mississippi’s child care facilities become centers of high-quality education.
Leaders of the Mississippi Building Blocks program were in Tupelo on Friday morning to talk about their plans to use private support to ensure that Mississippi children are prepared for school before they enter kindergarten.
“When times are tough, this is an opportunity for us to step in and lay the plans for when the economy recovers,” Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, said in a community forum at the Summit Convention Center.
Mississippi Building Blocks, which is sponsored by the Mississippi Economic Council, began in August. It is a four-year initiative that has currently raised $10 million, with only $500,000 of that money coming from a public grant. The CREATE Foundation made a $100,000 donation Friday.
The program currently is working with 100 toddler classrooms in the state with plans to add 3-year-old and 4-year-old classrooms over the next two years. Those 100 classrooms are in 57 centers, including seven in Lee County.
“The amount of time your brain grows most is before the age of 6, but the least amount of time and attention is spent on those children, said Laurie Smith, executive director of Mississippi Building Blocks.
With more than 80 percent of Mississippi children under age 5 enrolled in one of the state’s 1,740 child care facilities, program leaders focused their efforts on improving the quality of those facilities.
Participants in the program were randomly selected from those who expressed interest. Screeners from Mississippi Building Blocks then evaluated the classes’ flaws, according to the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale. They’ve worked with those classes to make needed improvements.
The program has provided equipment, such as books and age-appropriate toys and furniture where it has been needed.
Eleven Mississippi Building Blocks early childhood mentors have visited the classes, spending 20 consecutive days with the teachers there to model ways for them to better educate the children in their care. After the 20-day visit, the mentors continue to communicate with the child care staff to point them to resources and answer questions. They do regular checks to observe whether the facilities have continued to implement Mississippi Building Block’s recommendations. After six months, all of the facilities were retested on the ITERS assessment.
Smith said that data is still being collected. The program also provides child care providers with scholarships to get child development associate degrees and gives them a stipend once they have the degree.