State Ed Supt. wants to expand early learning programs

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright spoke Monday.

State Education Superintendent Carey Wright reiterated the importance of expanding early learning opportunities for Mississippi’s youngest learners on Monday.

When she began her position as state superintendent, “The one thing that I noted, particularly about early childhood, is it’s significantly important for children who live in poverty,” Wright told reporters at a Stennis Capitol Press Forum. “And in a state such as ours that significance cannot be overlooked.”

Wright noted nearly one in three children in the state live in poverty, and that figure increases for African American children.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 30 percent of all children in Mississippi under age 18 lived below the federal poverty level and 46 percent for African American children in 2016.

“So when you’ve got that level of poverty, being able to provide access to a high quality early childhood education is significant because it’s an equity issue,” she said. “We need to make sure that all of our children are learning, and learning at a good rate.”

Test results from spring 2017 show 78 percent of students in the state’s 10 early learning collaboratives scored at or above the target score, a 6.5 percent increase from last year’s test results.

Mississippi’s early learning collaboratives were created under the Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013, which provides funding to local communities to establish and support quality early childhood education and development services. The Legislature provided $3 million in the first three years for the collaboratives and then increased the amount to $4 million in 2016. The program funded 10 collaboratives last school year, comprised of 51 sites that served 1,645 students.

Wright said the department is seeking an additional $6 million for early childhood next fiscal year for a total of 14 collaboratives.

“The children that are in our early learning collaboratives are our highest scorers of all children in kindergarten,” Wright said. “So our collaborative are working in a very powerful way, we just need more of them.”

The topic of early childhood learning is something Mississippi can push for on a national stage now, she said. Gov. Phil Bryant was named chairman of Education Commission of the States in December 2016 and State Board of Education member John Kelly is chair-elect of the National Association of State Boards of Education. Wright was elected president of the Council of Chief State School Officers in November 2016.

Wright took questions about other areas of public education, stressing that the state needs to “move beyond” suspending and expelling pre-k students.

“I mean it’s mindblowing to think that we are sending home 3-year-olds, and 4-year-olds, and 5-year-olds,” Wright said. “We’ve got to figure a way to deal with their behavioral issues because if you’re not in school, you’re not going to learn and so we’ve got to figure out a way to make that happen.”

Wright also discussed the yet-to-operate Achievement School District, which she said will take over entire districts, not just schools. Decisions on which ones will join the ASD will be made in upcoming task force meetings to decide who fits the criteria, she said.

Last week the state Board of Education approved accountability scores for all public school districts and the state’s three charter schools. The results show that 70 percent of districts earned a C or higher in the 2016-17 school year.