By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – During her first year leading Mississippi’s school system, Carey Wright has spoken often about the need to expand early-childhood education in the state.
On Friday, the state superintendent of education noted a couple of efforts to bring in outside dollars to help with that effort. That includes forming a foundation to support pre-K in Mississippi and applying for a federal grant that could net as much as $60 million.
“I really believe early childhood is a secret that is going to really change the trajectory of education in Mississippi,” Wright said while meeting with the Daily Journal’s editorial board on Friday. She also spoke to Tupelo’s Kiwanis Club and toured the Tupelo Public School District’s pre-kindergarten program.
Wright will pitch the new foundation next month to about 60 Mississippi philanthropic individuals and businesses through the Mississippi grantmakers association. It would seek a holistic approach, such as coupling pre-K classrooms with health services or supports for teenage mothers.
Meanwhile, the state will apply in October for a U.S. Department of Education early education grant that could provide $15 million a year for four or five years.
Those funds would supplement the $6 million Mississippi currently spends on early childhood education for two programs – a grant program that provides funds to collaborative community pre-K efforts and Mississippi Building Blocks, which helps private centers improve their quality.
Wright said the best approach for improving pre-K in the state is through a partnership between private programs, Head Starts and public pre-K. <note> </note>She noted she would like to see an expansion of school-based centers, like the one in Tupelo.
“It is an absolute jewel that is hidden,” she said. “It is exactly what we want for all 3- and 4-year-olds in our state.”
Wright also spoke on Friday about:
• Her support for the Common Core State Standards and the new tests students will take on those standards, produced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
Mississippi schools and teachers have been working since 2010 to begin teaching the Common Core, which are new guidelines for what skills students should master in math and language arts. This will be the first year the state’s students are tested on them.
However, Gov. Phil Bryant in June called the standards “a failed program” and noted that the Legislature may consider taking action related to them next year.
That would be a mistake, Wright said, noting she has met with the governor about that.
“The State Board and I have been very firm in our stance in continuing the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the use of the PARCC assessment,” she said.
“…The standards are incredibly elegant and incredibly rigorous. We cannot go back to our old standards. Those have already been evaluated by outside evaluators and the message that we are getting back is that they are deficient. We know that Common Core has been evaluated by a number of eyes and a number of professional organizations and we know that the standards are incredibly rigorous.”
Speaking on the PARCC tests, Wright said she supports them because Mississippi has had a central role in helping to develop them.
• Efforts to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the formula Mississippi uses to determine how much money it provides to districts.
Two separate efforts are addressing the repeated underfunding of the formula – one through a lawsuit and another through a proposed constitutional amendment. Wright said the Mississippi Department of Education is not involved in either effort but that full funding is important.
“We know that our schools need to be fully funded,” she said. “It is hard when you are dealing with the lack of literacy children are coming to school with and you have to have the kinds of materials all of our students need and you need money to do that.”
• The need to help more high school students across the state to take dual enrollment and Advanced Placement classes, which are more rigorous and can allow students to earn college credit.
Wright said the cost of dual enrollment courses with various colleges and community colleges varies, and the state may need to consider a policy with a standardized cost to ensure all students are able to afford the courses.
She also said it must look at ways to offer such courses virtually so students in rural areas can have access to them.