Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First Credit: Mississippi First

Mississippi’s children deserve more easily accessible and higher quality state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, Mississippi First concludes in its new report, The State of Pre-K in Mississippi (2014-2015).

Mississippi First, founded in 2008, is a nonprofit organization which advocates for pre-kindergarten programs and charter schools. This report is a follow-up to The State of Pre-K in Mississippi (2011-2012).

The new 50-page analysis includes county and school district data about student access to pre-kindergarten programs; statistics on four-year-olds who are enrolled in Head Start, pre-kindergarten programs and licensed child care centers; and assessments of the quality of these programs. The report also lists types of programs available, numbers of specific programs and providers of the programs.

“We got our data directly from school districts, Mississippi Department of Education, Head Start or the Department of Human Services,” said Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First.

Mississippi First’s recommendations include:

• Expand the state-funded pre-kindergarten program,

• Support existing district programs in meeting national quality benchmarks,

• Implement a quality assessment system for licensed child care centers.

In 2013, the Legislature appropriated $3 million for the Early Learning Collaborative Act, the first state-funded program for local communities to establish and expand early childhood education and development services.

Before the first collaborative awards were announced for 11 Mississippi communities in December 2013, a study conducted by the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University showed children who attended locally funded school district pre-kindergarten programs were more likely to succeed than those who didn’t. It also showed children involved with these programs were more likely to score higher on standardized tests.

“We know that the pre-K services that Mississippi districts are providing make a difference,” the report states.

Since 2008, communities with state-funded early education programs increased the number of pre-kindergarten seats by 37%, compared to the 24% increase in other districts, Mississippi First’s data shows. Currently, there are 14 state-funded early education programs.

Overall, in 2014-2015, 75 school districts offered pre-kindergarten programs free of cost.

Mississippi First’s second recommendation is to help school districts meet the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) benchmark requirements.

Some of the benchmarks include adhering to comprehensive early learning standards, employing teachers with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and limiting class sizes to no more than 20 students.

“Most of the school districts didn’t meet the 10 out of 10 benchmark,” said Canter. “Beginning in the fall (2017-2018 school year), the Mississippi Department of Education requires it.”

Mississippi First suggested the Department of Education create a plan to “provide individualized support to districts” in order to meet the Early Education Research benchmarks.

The last recommendation Canter mentioned was for government to implement a new way to determine the quality of private licensed child care centers. The Quality Stars Program, the current rating system for child care centers, has been eliminated by the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Under that program, as defined by the department, the more stars a facility earned reflected the higher quality of care it provided.

Canter said that without statewide tracking it’s difficult for policymakers to measure quality. Instead of cutting the Quality Stars Program, Mississippi First recommended that the program be revamped.

The Legislature annually appropriated $3 million for pre-kindergarten programs between 2013 and 2015 (fiscal years 2014, 2015 and 2016), and in 2016, lawmakers appropriated $4 million for fiscal year 2017.

However, this investment is “still too small,” Mississippi First’s report states.

“It’s a competitive grant process,” said Jill Dent, the Department of Education’s director of the office of early childhood education. Allocation of funds from the Legislature determines how many communities can receive funds and how much they receive, she said.

According to Dent, her office provides services to school districts, child care centers and Head Start; health and developmental training; and pre-kindergarten services for four-year-old children.

Mississippi First’s report proposes expanding the number of programs and increasing their quality and accessibility.

Once policymakers, stakeholders, donors and legislators read this report, Canter said, she hopes they will invest more funds into the state-funded pre-kindergarten program.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the number of early education programs in the state, the Mississippi Legislature’s annual appropriation for pre-kindergarten programs and the name of the Mississippi First report which preceded The State of Pre-K in Mississippi (2014-2015).

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.