In the 23 years that Jennifer Calvert has offered preschool for 4-year-olds in this rural town, she has never filled a classroo Im. Last year, just six students signed up, even though Calvert has room for 19 in her bright, spacious child care center. Calvert said that many families wanted their children in pre-kindergarten, but simply couldn’t pay the tuition. “Most of my parents are single parents. Many single parents cannot afford $80 a week,” Calvert said on a recent afternoon at ABC Pre-School & Nursery Inc., as children practiced writing letters with a teacher’s help and played in carefully labeled areas of the room, packed with toys, books and dress-up clothing.
There is good news ahead for Calvert, who expects a packed classroom for the first time ever in August as part of Mississippi’s first foray into state-funded preschool. Jennifer Calvert, director of the ABC Pre-School & Nursery Inc. in Aberdeen, Miss., helps a student build a pattern during a morning activity. (Photo: Jackie Mader) Calvert and a smattering of local school districts, child care centers, and Head Start programs will all benefit from the addition of $3 million in state grants approved by the legislature. The money will serve nearly two-dozen school districts this year and reach an estimated 2,400 4-year-olds during the next two and a half years, according to Robin Lemonis, director of early childhood, literacy, and dyslexia for the Mississippi Department of Education. That’s fewer than 6 percent of the state’s population of 4-year-olds.
Calvert will be able to lower tuition, train teachers in reading and assessments and outfit her classroom with an electronic whiteboard and a new, touchscreen computer. The long awaited state funds will also help buy materials and supplies, improve teacher quality, and jump start education for more children in Mississippi’s cash-strapped public schools, who too often start kindergarten behind – and stay behind. “This is, at best, a start. That’s about all you can say. All the other states are putting in substantially more money.” — Steve Suitts, vice president, Southern Education Foundation. Still, the money won’t solve the massive need for early learning in Mississippi, until recently the only state in the south with no publicly funded pre-K. Nine other U.S. states do not fund pre-K.
“This is, at best, a start. That’s about all you can say,” said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation. “All the other states are putting in substantially more money.” Only about half of low-income 3 and 4 year olds in the Magnolia state are enrolled in preschool, and some 35 percent of children live in poverty – the highest percentage in the nation. Year after year, teachers say, far too many children come to kindergarten unprepared. Some 71 percent of state teachers surveyed recently had at least one child repeating kindergarten; 41 percent said their children weren’t able to identify colors and shapes or hold a crayon, according to Mississippi Kids Count, which collects state data and statistics. National studies illustrate why a lack of early education is a crisis in Mississippi. Fewer than half of poor children in the U.S. are considered ready for school at age five, compared with 75 percent of their moderate and high-income peers. A 2013 study by Stanford University found that low-income students who do not attend preschool have already lost 1,400 hours of valuable learning time.
A growing body of research has found that high quality pre-K programs can boost reading and math scores, teaching children important classroom skills like how to raise their hands and pay attention. For years, parents and Mississippi education advocates have fought for such benefits, battling a recalcitrant state legislature. “All the basic skills that you need to participate in a democratic society, quite frankly, happen in the early years,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington D.C The earliest years of a child’s life are critical for brain development; Allvin said; if children are not in high-quality learning environments during those years, “you miss this incredibly window of opportunity that you never get back.” Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has taken a cautious approach to pre-K; in a report released in January, Bryant said that he does not support mandatory pre-K, but is supportive of early learning programs that can prove positive outcomes. “The ultimate responsibility for a child’s earliest education rests with his or her parents and guardians,” Bryant said. Mississippi’s recent modest investment comes at a time of increased focus on quality early childhood education nationally. In 2013, the Obama Administration proposed a $75 billion program that would provide pre-K to more than 330,000 low and moderate-income 4-year-olds in America.