By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Mississippi must significantly improve its early-childhood education, new state Superintendent Carey Wright said Wednesday.
Wright, who started her new job last month, visited with the Daily Journal Editorial Board on Wednesday. Asked about her priorities, she said the approach starts with the youngest students.
“To me, it is absolutely crucial we get a strong early childhood program across the state of Mississippi,” Wright said. “We are doing a pilot program, but we need to be doing a lot more than that.”
Access to pre-K programs helps many children enter school better prepared to learn, she said. Not only does it improve academic skills, but it also helps students with traits like self-discipline, she said.
“I know the power of early-childhood education,” she said, noting that includes a continuum from pre-K though third grade. “There is way too much research not to be putting our money there.”
Wright, 63, was selected by the State Board of Education in September after a 36-year career that included stops in Maryland and the District of Columbia. She spoke of the pre-K programs available in both locales, including a universal 3-year-old program in D.C.
The advantage of a program administered by public school districts, Wright said, is schools can ensure the classes are taught by trained, licensed educators, who are not always found at day care centers. However, she said, it would be impractical to create such a statewide program immediately, and efforts also should be made to improve the quality of existing centers.
Other priorities cited by the new education chief include improving literacy, ensuring students exit high school prepared for colleges and careers and providing training for teachers, principals and superintendents.
“Literacy is an issue in the state,” she said. “…We have too many children below grade level in reading.”
The urgency is amplified by Mississippi’s new third-grade reading gate, which will require students to be reading on grade-level to advance to fourth grade.
Preparing to meet that new law will require more resources, training, interventions and partnerships between districts, she said. It also will require more money, she said, noting the $9 million provided by lawmakers is “simply not enough.”
For one, Mississippi will need more literacy coaches, who visit teachers, watch them teach and help them improve. The state only has money for 30 such positions now, she said.
“Teaching children to read is an art and a science,” she said.
Mississippi must examine all of its high school courses to ensure they are properly aligned with the requirements of higher education, she said. High school graduates should not need to take remedial courses upon starting college. Currently, a high percentage of Mississippi high school graduates need such courses, which cost money but don’t offer credit.
Wright called for more dual-enrollment and dual-credit programs, in which high school students can earn college credits on their home campus. She also will target more Advanced Placement offerings, high-level classes that can grant college credit if students pass an exam.
Only 14.6 percent of Mississippi high school students take AP classes, she said. Of those, only 4.7 percent pass their exam with a score of 3 or greater. As districts try to improve that, she said, they can stretch resources by partnering with other districts, perhaps using technology to share courses.
Speaking on funding, Wright said she does not believe money always is the answer but that Mississippi schools currently are underfunded.
“I’m not necessarily one who always believes it is necessary to constantly ask for more money, but we need to look at are you adequately funding education across the state,” she said.
Wright must be confirmed by the State Senate during the upcoming session. She said Wednesday she already has begun meeting with legislators.