Monroe County shows what a well-formed system of early childhood learning might look like in Mississippi.
While the county pushes ahead, state support for preschool education reform appears stalled after Gov. Phil Bryant's modest proposals were defeated in the Legislature.
Mississippi is one of 11 states without a state-funded preschool program. Advocates have been struggling to expand such programs for more than two decades.
In 1990, under Gov. Ray Mabus, the Legislature passed a pilot program but never funded it. Last year, the state failed to win a federal grant that could have led to expansion of early childhood learning.
In March, the state House voted against Bryant's attempt to transfer authority for child care centers from the Department of Health to the Department of Human Services. The governor said the shift would put more focus on learning.
Private child care centers fought the bill, saying they feared Human Services would decree expensive requirements.
Education advocates replied by launching a public campaign to build support for preschool, saying quality learning at an early age lays the foundation for success.
"Mississippi cannot expect to grow business or compete for new opportunities if we do not provide a cohesive system that supports school readiness," said Rhea Williams-Bishop, executive director for the Center for Education Innovation.
Federal funds provide some form of preschool aid to nearly half of Mississippi four-year-olds, but states with more comprehensive systems enroll nearly three-quarters of four-year-olds.
So as the state ponders its options — Bryant says he wants a year to study "best practices" — some school systems are trying innovative approaches.
In Amory, Aberdeen and other Monroe County communities, the benefactor is the Gilmore Foundation. The nonprofit pocketed a bundle of cash after selling a hospital. Led by executive director Danny Spreitler, Gilmore invested in preschool programs. Its Gilmore Early Learning Initiative embraces the philosophy that early education is the best way to reduce school dropouts and teen pregnancy. Mississippi's high school dropout rate exceeds the national average, and its teen pregnancy rate is the nation's highest.
"If you want to make a change, studies show the focus has to be on early childhood," he said.
One recent morning at West Amory Elementary School, two classrooms of 4-year-olds were learning about the letter R and how to recognize a few simple words. They also worked on songs and seeing what happens when you mix colors. Much of the day is spent playing with toys and looking at books.
"In pre-K, we are not teaching," Spreitler said. "We are developing."
The initiative spends about $90,000 a year at the school, paying for supplies and four teachers who earn $15,000 each for the school year. The program operates under a state waiver, allowing graduates of two-year Itawamaba Community College to be hired.
The students are from families higher on the economic ladder than those who qualify for the federal Head Start program or subsidized child care, although few people are wealthy in Monroe County. Major employers are furniture factories, chemical plants and local hospitals, and income levels are lower than the state average.
"You have those middle-class families that don't qualify for head start but don't have $100 a week to put a child in a private center," Spreitler said.
The Amory school district is building a new wing onto the school, including classrooms with windows low enough that preschoolers can see out.
The scene is similar at privately run French's Child Learning and Development Center, where 15 employees care for more than 60 children.
Owner Annie French said she started caring for children in the back bedroom of her home 16 years ago. But she changed "almost everything" after starting work with Gilmore. Employees are better-trained and the lunch menu is designed with outside help. The foundation has worked with child care center owners on their business model.
"When they came along it really improved my business," French said. "They're just for quality, for the sake of the children."
Children at French's and other private centers use the same kinds of toys and books provided by the initiative, and rooms are organized in the same way as at West Amory.
Although preschool classrooms are the initiative's centerpiece, it has other working parts. An old grocery store now hosts a resource center where teachers and parents can check out books, toys and teaching supplies. The initiative sends birthday-present books to children, has reading parties, and sponsors a dial-a-story line. There are also health screenings.
In some ways, Mississippi is closer to a public preschool system than it first appears. The federal government pays for nearly half the state's 4-year-olds, according to the education advocacy group Mississippi First. About 37 percent of such children participated in the Head Start program in 2009-2010. Another 11 percent of 4-year-olds participated in preschool classrooms run by 53 of the state's 152 school districts, mainly through federal funding. And that doesn't count the 18,000 slots in private centers that are subsidized with federal dollars.
Money is a big problem.
"Everybody in the early childhood community is trying to push toward the same goal. It's just that we have limited resources," said Rickey Berry, executive director of the Department of Human Resources.
But the Monroe County experience suggests a system that absorbs and learns from private programs already operating could be financially workable.
Mississippi had about 211,000 children younger than 5 in 2010, while Monroe County had about 2,500. The $650,000 the Gilmore Foundation is spending this year, multiplied statewide, would be less than $60 million. By contrast, Mississippi is spending almost $2 billion in state money alone to educate about 500,000 K-12 students this year. Pre-K costs are cheaper in part because federal and private dollars already pay for so much.
Spreitler is proud of Gilmore's accomplishments in Monroe County. But he expects the state to develop its own system.
"Our program will not survive," he said. "It will become part of what the state mandates."