Task force focuses on early childhood education

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Education leaders from the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University want to play a role in helping Northeast Mississippi develop its pre-kindergarten preparation.
When the task force of leaders from those universities met at the CREATE Foundation on Friday, its members presented their plans for developing Northeast Mississippi.
One of the ideas that received particular emphasis was the need to create better early childhood education.
“Research shows that the earlier we can work with children, the greater potential to increase their capacity,” said David Rock, dean of the UM School of Education. “We need to teach children from a young age.”
A committee that included Rock and Richard Blackbourn, dean of MSU’s College of Education, presented on Friday several ideas to expand early childhood education in the region.
“Our view was that where we could get more bang for the buck is dealing with young kids who come in without the experience they need to be successful,” Blackbourn said.
They called for school districts to use their federal funds to provide additional classes for children younger than kindergarten age. This could include summer programs, after-school care, community initiatives that target “feeder” early child care and in-home visitations.
Districts have flexibility to use federal Title 1 funds for programs like early childhood education, while state funds are mostly designated to pay teacher salaries.
The Tupelo Public School District uses its Title 1 money for a school program that serves 220 4-year-old children.
Task force members also urged school districts to develop relationships with existing child care providers.
“Communication of this type better positions both parties in addressing the needs of students,” the task force’s report said.
Meanwhile, local communities must encourage their child-care providers to enroll in the Mississippi Child Care Quality Step System, the group said.
The system is voluntary, but it gives child-care providers a score based upon how well their services are meeting an established standard for educating young children.
Community leaders could host enrollment meetings and provide monetary rewards for centers that participate in the program, the group said. Doing so would help ensure that the early-childhood options within the community are of a high quality.
“Endless research shows that if we can get to children at a young age, they have a greater potential to succeed,” Rock said. “We need to start putting it as a highest priority.
“Imagine if we could work with children already prepared to read in kindergarten and first grade.”
In order to call attention to the need for higher quality early education, the group also recommended that CREATE organize an Early Childhood Education Summit similar to the foundation’s Dropout Prevention Summit.
“It is a very important area,” Blackbourn said. “We think it should be a focal point for CREATE.”
Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president for CREATE, said the idea will be considered.
“I think it was a good recommendation, and we will look at that and see if we can add it to our program of work,” he said Friday.
Meanwhile, the task force will meet again to determine how it can best implement its ideas, including those that help prepare students for kindergarten.
Although funding has been tight in that area, Rock said that cannot be an excuse.
“When we look at funding, we need to make that a priority,” he said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.