By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Tupelo may soon embark on an effort to boost the health and education of its youngest residents.
A cross-section of community leaders attended a Wednesday meeting about the possibility of joining Excel by 5, a program that helps communities support their children from birth to age 5 and ensure that they are eventually prepared to start kindergarten.
Thirty-one Mississippi towns, cities or counties are currently participating in the initiative, which provides a blueprint of strategies. Those that follow the blueprint are certified as being locations with high-quality early childhood services.
“We provide best practices that have been put in place in order for a community to serve its youngest citizens,” said Bob Clay, Excel by 5’s executive director.
Representatives from Lee County also attended Wednesday’s meeting at North Mississippi Medical Center’s Wellness Center, and the county, or individual communities within it, may also join the push.
Wednesday’s meeting emerged from a project undertaken by Cheryl Wheeler, Beverly Williams, Hank Boerner, Taylor Sanders and Katarsha White as part of their participation in CDF’s Jim Ingram Community Leadership Institute.
They invited representatives from various community groups – such as schools, businesses, parents, hospitals, government and early education centers – to participate in the forum led by Clay, who explained the program.
The group will hold a follow-up meeting to determine its next steps and whether it will submit an application.
“Our focus has been on dropout prevention and closing the achievement gap,” said Williams, assistant director of finance at CREATE. “A lot of talk lately has been about early-childhood education.
“This is something we could do as community members.”
Excel by 5 is a Mississippi-only initiative. Eight communities have gained certification, which must be renewed after three years, and 23 others are working toward that goal. In Northeast Mississippi, Monroe County and West Point are certified, while Lafayette County, New Albany/Union County and Oktibbeha County are candidate communities.
To become certified, participants must meet certain criteria in four areas: community involvement, family and parental support, early care and education and health. They must follow such steps as holding an annual town hall meeting to get input, addressing those needs, opening a resource center for parents of young children, hosting a health fair for children under age 5 and boosting credentials of early child care providers.