By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – While Mississippi searches for ways to better educate its 4-year-old students, the Tupelo Public School District has found a model that has brought success.
The 7,500-student district uses federal money it receives for having a high percentage of low-income students to educate 260 4-year-olds, more than half the size of a typical kindergarten class. It has had particular success in providing its students more than a year’s worth of academic growth.
“The Tupelo program has been one of the guiding lights in the state,” said longtime Mississippi early childhood education expert Cathy Grace.
“… This is a Mississippi program in a Mississippi community. They are not all like Tupelo. We have a community that has stayed the course and continued to improve, taking into account the science behind early childhood to make modifications they needed.”
After housing pre-K programs at its individual elementary schools more than 20 years ago, the district combined its early childhood efforts into one program in 1996 and housed it at King School on North Green Street. During each of the 16 years since then, at least 60 percent of the school’s students have achieved more than a year’s worth of growth, and the figure was greater than 80 percent in eight of those years. It was at least 70 percent 15 times.
“We teach the children where they are and according to their needs,” said Dale Warriner, the TPSD’s director of Federal Programs who oversees the program. “The assessments we give identify students’ strengths and weaknesses.”
The district’s minority students who have participated in the program have scored much higher on standardized tests than minority students who did not. For instance, about 55 percent of minority third-graders who are alumni of the Early Childhood Education Center scored at least proficient in reading on the state test in 2010-11. About 35 percent of minority students who did not attend the program reached that mark.
In fact, third-grade minority students who went to ECEC have outscored those who didn’t in language and mathematics on state standardized tests by at least 10 percentage points for each of the past 10 years.
Lead teacher Anita Buchanan attributes the success to the credentials of the teaching staff. All 13 of school’s teachers are classified as highly qualified, meaning they have at least a four-year degree and a teaching license. Many have master’s degrees, Buchanan said, and two are nationally board certified, with a third pursuing certification.
All 13 of its assistant teachers have at least two years of college, higher credentials than similar age-range programs.
“That is a big plus for us,” Buchanan said. “They have the training to work with young children and meet their needs.”
Teacher Amanda Young said she typically sees her students grow over the course of a year.
“You see gains in social skills, or they’ll go from knowing the letters in their name to knowing the entire alphabet,” she said. “Their writing skills will improve so that they can write their entire name by the end of the year. There are a lot of areas in which they grow.”
Young said the school’s teachers benefit from professional development offered by the school district and various workshops they attend. They also work during the summer to write the curriculum based on Early Learning Standards developed by a statewide team of experts.
Teachers in every classroom must read six books a day to children, Warriner said. There also is an emphasis on social skills and collaboration.
Superintendent Gearl Loden has publicly expressed plans to expand. The district is exploring using low-interest bond money to construct more classrooms.
Adding students would require additional funding. Each class of 20 students costs about $100,000, Warriner said. Because the program is currently funded only by federal Title 1 dollars, it can be difficult to know from year to year how many classrooms will be funded. Sometimes officials don’t know a final allocation amount until the fall.
Ideally, Warriner said, the district would serve about 400 students in the program, an amount that’s about 80 percent of a typical kindergarten class.
“Tupelo’s data has helped silence cynics and people who question what early childhood education can do in the long run,” Grace said.