By Chris Kieffer
VERONA – Crysta Allen was excited to learn on Monday night about a new resource for her 7-month-old daughter.
The Plantersville resident was among the attendees at Monday’s update meeting for Lee County’s Excel By 5 organization, held at Verona Elementary School. The meeting also spotlighted the school’s new resource center created by a grant Excel By 5 received from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.
Opened last spring, the center is stocked with books, puzzles, games and other educational resources designed for children age 5 and younger. Parents can bring their children to use the materials or they can check them out for a brief period.
“I can’t afford too many educational toys,” Allen said. “If I can come over and find something she can play with, that is great. I’m down for anything educational.”
Excel By 5 is a Mississippi program designed to provide better supports for children in their first five years. It outlines a series of steps participating communities must take in order to be certified as being early childhood-friendly communities.
Lee County’s organization is in the process of trying to become certified. Its biggest hurdle involves criteria that the county’s early childhood centers must meet.
Sixty percent of the county’s 50 centers must agree to be evaluated according to an environment rating scale. Only 14 or 15 of the needed 31 have done so thus far.
Also, at least 40 percent of Lee County’s licensed child care providers must agree to have 40 percent of their staff do five hours more training than the 15 that the state requires. That same number of centers also must have at least 40 percent of their staff hold a CDA certificate or a college degree in the field of early-childhood education.
Currently, 11 of the required 21 have reached those goals, said Beverly Williams, certification manager for Lee County Excel By 5.
Becoming certified is important, she said, because it shows the education of young children is important to the community. It also fosters communication and collaboration between the centers.
The organization has taken many of the other steps required for certification. Those have included surveying more than 380 parents, creating a resource guide, holding parent workshops and coordinating community-wide events, among other tasks.
“I feel like we are an advocate group to encourage parents,” Williams said. “So much of it depends on what parents do at home with their kids.”
The resource center is one way it helps with that. Another is the new Imagination Library program that allows any resident of Verona, Shannon and Plantersville with a child under age 5 to receive a free book every month. Excel By 5 pays $25 per child each year for the program run by the Dollywood Foundation.
That program has 160 children enrolled, but the organization is trying to spread the word to reach more families. It had expected to reach 300 to 400 children.
The Imagination Library may expand to Tupelo children in the future. For now, any Verona, Shannon or Plantersville resident who wants to participate can contact Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tupelo’s Brittany Weekley, who has a 3-year-old daughter, said it is helpful to have resources dedicated to young children.
“It is good to have something like this, to have activities to help children learn, especially at a young age,” she said.