BILLY CREWS: Start a movement for pre-K through private-sector scholarships

By Billy Crews/NEMS Daily Journal

Experience tells us, logic reinforces and research confirms that early childhood education is the most significant and predictive indicator of human development and future achievement. Nonetheless, in Mississippi, Northeast Mississippi, Lee County and Tupelo we still haven’t made the commitment to a seamless, comprehensive early childhood educational experience for all of our children.
Now, for my children and probably yours, this is not true. Our children receive quality pre-school exposure and experiences. We would not have it any other way. Whether it was nurturing our first, second and third born with a “print rich” environment where exposure to thousands of words through conversation and “story time” was routine or through more formal offerings at church-sponsored pre-school programs, our children needed and benefited from this “head start.” All of these building blocks took place before they walked the three blocks to Church Street Elementary for public kindergarten and first grade.
This early childhood education, informal and formal, has provided a foundation for the rest of their lives.
That is why I was so pleased when the Tupelo public school superintendent and Board of Trustees thoughtfully decided to keep all 11 pre-K classes at its King Early Childhood Education Center when federal funding was determined available for only nine classes next fall. Rather than eliminating two classes the district decided to offer 40 tuition-paying slots for those who can afford the $5,250 cost. Apparently the pre-K teachers and program are of such high quality for the 220 children who have been attending – and the resulting educational value so significant – that the system is creatively working to maintain it and avoid cutting back.
It sounds like the right thing to do to me.
Though I have not personally experienced or evaluated this pre-K program, I have walked through the building and one particular classroom in the last year and was impressed. I also have heard positive comments from school and community advocates that make me believe its reputation as an excellent experience is deserved. But I claim no unique insight or oversight. It just makes sense.
Then I heard an idea that makes even more sense. If there are 220 children in Tupelo this year that need public pre-K experiences and likely are not able to access that in quality and affordable alternative sites like my children could when they were growing up, is the best alternative to open this up to tuition students or to continue the focus on those with the greatest academic need?
Local dentist, neighbor and Tupelo Schools product Harry Rayburn called me with a better idea. He asked, “Can we figure out how to raise money to pay for the tuition for those who could benefit most from this pre-K experience?”
I think we can. And I think we should. But more importantly, what do you think?
My math skills tell me that if about 210 Tupelo citizens gave a $1,000 scholarship for a child who would not otherwise have a quality pre-K experience, we could raise $210,000, which is the exact cost of providing a one-year pre-K education for 40 students (40 students times $5,250 in tuition per child = $210,000).
We investors could make $500 payments in August and January, making this even more affordable for us as community members to step up and do something rather than only pay lip service to the importance of early childhood education.
I don’t know if we could do this every year, but I believe we could start something one year and then figure out how committed we are and should be as a community to pre-K education for all.
The Tupelo schools had a good idea, not shutting down two of its most important pre-K classes. Harry Rayburn built on this idea and made it even better. I talked to Tupelo School Superintendent Randy Shaver last week and he thought it made sense, too.
The recently started Tuition Free Community College scholarship program caught on like wildfire and spread throughout Northeast Mississippi. It was initiated with private sector dollars at the CREATE Foundation, then gained momentum with public and private dollars from Three Rivers Planning and Development District leadership, county board of supervisors’ commitment and then more private philanthropy city by city, county by county. Now, most any graduating high school senior in our region can afford to go to community college. That is a great model.
But, if this is an important initiative (and it certainly is), how much more important is a similar commitment to pre-school education? We can start a movement through 40 slots at a Tupelo early childhood center and see where it goes.
Harry and I know where the first $3,000 will come from and that’s a good enough start for us. If you are interested in children and the future educational achievement in our community, this is a good place to invest.
You can e-mail me at billy.crews@djournal.com or Harry at hjrayburn@hotmail.com, if you are interested in providing a $1,000 scholarship. We will keep you posted on the results.

Billy Crews is chairman and CEO of Journal, Inc. Contact him at 662-678-1504. Harry Rayburn can be reached at 840-0066.