CATHY GRACE: Don't forget young kids in education talks

Parents are their child's first and best teachers, no mistake about it, but they are not in it alone-extended family, neighbors, friends and their child's pre-school teacher also influence what and how a child learns. The John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University recently completed an assessment of the status of child care and early education programs in the state. The complete study, found at www.mskids.org, provides the most comprehensive picture of Mississippi's licensed child care and early childhood education programs ever developed. The information was compiled through surveying all programs, utilizing child care facility licensing data from the Mississippi Department of Health, data from the Mississippi Department of Education, federal data sources including the US Bureau of the Census and other state and local sources. With over 700 programs responding to the survey and data from the licensing bureau on all 1,600-plus licensed facilities, the findings reveal the inconsistencies in the educational opportunities afforded young children in our state.

Now, interested parents, school officials, community development personnel and policy makers can look at county and site specific data when analyzing test scores, making economic development presentations and seeking information to inform choices as to what program best meets the needs and expectations of families seeking a pre-school program for their child. They can also discover the significant differences across the state in program areas such as curriculum, qualifications of teaching staff and program directors, utilization of curriculum benchmarks established by the Mississippi Department of Education and the number of unserved children by county by age by program type.

As directed by the law that mandated the assessment, several groups reviewed the information and made the following recommendations. In the continuing discussions about the education of our children these recommendations should not go unnoticed as the quality of a child's earliest educational experiences greatly influences later school success.

All federal dollars for early childhood education must be captured and used by the state. Mississippi will gain almost $16 million dollars for early childhood programs if $6.6 million in state dollars are spent in matching and Maintenance of Effort Funds.

The development of a system to ensure that quality improvements occur in programs that request assistance in improving the educational level of staff and content of their educational program.

The dissemination of the Mississippi Department of Education Curriculum Benchmarks for three and four-year-olds to all programs with accompanying training for staff on how to use them in program planning and individual child assessments.

The continuation of the data assessment system for the purpose of evaluating the state's progress in increasing the number of additional programs meeting standards of program excellence.

Assess the current process by which child care certificates for eligible children are disseminated for the purpose of streamlining the system so more funds reach the children who qualify.

Authorize the State Board of Education to implement a program to make available a full-day voluntary pre-kindergarten program by 2006 for four-year-olds through a collaborative effort between Head Start, licensed child care centers and school districts that reflect a need with full implementation by 2008.

Authorize the State Board of Education to implement a program to make available a full-day voluntary pre-kindergarten program by 2008 for three-year-olds through a collaborative effort between Head Start, licensed child care centers and school districts beginning with the counties that reflect a need with full implementation by 2010.

The information in the assessment is based on self reports and data collected by state sanctioned agencies. The stories behind the data are more telling in some instances than the numbers themselves. Quality education for young children comes at a price. Many programs in our state have long suffered from inadequate state support while attempting to serve the most educationally at-risk of our children from the families making the lowest wage. Quality improvements can occur, even when economic times are tough. It is just a matter of establishing priorities.

Cathy Grace is Director of the Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State University and Professor of Elementary Education. She served as co-chair of the Oversite Committee which was charged with the responsibility of seeing that the assessment was accomplished; recommendations made based on the data and made available to the public.