OUR OPINION: Dropout Summit highlights success in early learning

By NEMS Daily Journal

Dropout rates changed little overall in Northeast Mississippi’s school districts during 2010, the last official reporting period tabulated by the Mississippi Department of Education, but at 17 percent the average was down .6 percent from 2006, when the Dropout Prevention Summit began keeping records, and .3 percent higher than in 2009.
However, teachers and administrators who filled the Advanced Education Center auditorium on Friday for the 2012 summit, sponsored by CREATE Foundation, came away with a trove of information about programs already started that could lower dropout rates and increase student achievement in years to come.
Two efforts, in particular, have made a strong impact and hold potential for additional progress:
• Gilmore Memorial Foundation in Amory, a private endowment, commits about $1.5 million a year to education, including more than $320,000 to the GELI – the Gilmore Early Learning Initiative, which last week opened its newest operation, a professionally staffed resource facility called The Center offering “deployable” teaching materials for parents and their children 1-3 years old from across Monroe County.
Gilmore executive Danny Spreitler explained The Center’s focus and how it grew from initial idea to operation in only a year. The center works in cooperation with the Amory Public Schools, led by Superintendent Gearl Loden, and it had input from Lynn Darling, interim director of the Early Childhood Center at Mississippi State University, a thriving think tank for early childhood development program collaboration. Darling is interim while Cathy Grace is on sabbatical, serving as director of early childhood at the Children’s Defense Fund, a nationwide organization.
GELI is a comprehensive program focusing on the development of all children in Monroe County from birth until five with several components:
• Lasting Memories is a program designed for families with newborns in Monroe County to start a family library, to ensure that every child born in Monroe County has the opportunity to have stories read to them. Each child born in Monroe County receives the library books and materials on parenting. As an added bonus, enrollment is available to all children living in Monroe County from birth to 5 years old.
• Horizon is a program designed to support the development of young children who are enrolled in licensed child care centers in Monroe County. The child care centers are measured using national and state standards.
• GELI Resource Center The (GELI) Parent Resource Center is the one stop point of contact, information, instruction, and material deployment for parents needing resources to educate their child. The center has various forms for media for instruction, developmental toys, and instructors.
• Excel by Five is an innovative program designed to encourage and assist communities to become actively involved in supporting the young children of Monroe County. Monroe County is a fully certified Excel community.
• The Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State holds a national reputation in research and application related to early childhood learning and children living in poverty. Its staff is an intellectual resource for many pilot programs, proposals and explorations linked to how children learn and how children learn best in the years from birth through pre-school.
Darling said Friday the lack of educational attainment is reflected in painful statistics found in Mississippi’s corrections system: 75 percent of inmates do not have a high school diploma.
Darling’s presentation also highlighted statistics that are stubbornly persistent:
• Reading proficiency among Mississippi fourth graders is far below national norms;
• The percentage of students below proficiency is poor among all groups, but the racial gap is wide: 70 percent for whites, 75 percent for Hispanics and 88 percent for blacks.
Darling also reminded the audience predominantly of educators that pre-K learning is essential in maximizing development of young children’s brains, which are most receptive in the years from birth to kindergarten.
Early, successful preparation creates a better chance for success among participating children, which makes dropping out less likely.