By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – As Mississippi searches for money to fund a statewide pre-kindergarten program, Tupelo’s Early Childhood Education Center has flourished.
Over the past 12 years, the Tupelo Public School District program for 4-year-olds has made a big impact in preparing students for kindergarten, according to the results of an assessment test those students take at the beginning and end of the year.
For the previous two years, that program, which is mostly funded by federal Title 1 dollars, has served about 220 students. That’s roughly half of an incoming kindergarten class. Although federal funding for next year is uncertain, the district’s school board has recently committed to maintaining that enrollment.
“With the success of the Early Childhood Education Center, we believe that early intervention for our youngest children builds them for success from the start,” said school board president Amy Heyer. “…We believe it is money well spent, and we are committed to it.”
The future size of the school was in question when school officials learned that their federal funding could be cut by about 15 percent. Although figures for this year won’t be known until October, those officials have since been told that those cuts are less likely.
Regardless, the board has committed to keeping the program at its current level – 11 classes of 20 students – for the upcoming year.
Last year, the district needed a private fundraising effort, which raised $100,000, to maintain that level. That won’t be required this year, although district officials said they appreciated having that support, which allowed 20 extra students to attend the school last year.
Last year, the district received $1.8 million in federal Title 1 money, and spent $1.2 million of that for the Early Childhood Education Center. A 15 percent cut would have been a little more than $275,000.
The school board will discuss its budget for the 2011-12 school year at its next meeting on Tuesday.
The board’s commitment is backed by recently-released district data showing the scores of the school’s students on the Early Prevention of School Failure test. That nationally-validated assessment measures language development, cognitive skills and motor skills.
In each of the past 12 years, the average score on that test when given to the ECEC students at the beginning of the year ranged between the 14th and 27th percentile. Given at the end of the year, the average score has ranged between the 58th percentile and the 73rd.
“The more children you have ready to learn in kindergarten, the more successful the district will be,” said Dale Warriner, Tupelo Schools’ Director of Federal Programs.
The program’s goal is to serve those with the greatest academic need. Students with the lowest scores on the EPSF test are given first priority, although the district generally also has space available for students who score higher on the test.
There are about 20 spots still open this year, although enrollment is more robust than normal for this time of year.