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Four-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K through Head Start did not perform as well as their counterparts enrolled through school districts last school year, which state officials attributed to more time spent in virtual learning.
Early learning collaboratives (ELCs) are one form of public pre-K, made up of partnerships among school districts, Head Start agencies, childcare centers, and nonprofit groups. Collaboratives follow the same curriculum and share professional development opportunities and resources, with the goal of providing all students enrolled with the same quality of instruction.
Last month, the Mississippi Department of Education released the most recent results from the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, which measures public pre-K and kindergarten students on their early literacy skills. It is used as an instructional baseline for teachers, and students who meet their benchmark score have been shown to become proficient in reading by the end of third grade. This spring, 48% of students in an ELC through Head Start met the benchmark score, while 71% of the other ELC students did.
Edshundra Gary, the Greenwood Leflore School District’s early learning director, attributed this decline to a few weeks of lost instructional time teaching students who never attended daycare how to behave in a classroom and how to observe COVID safety protocols.
Students who participate through Head Start, a federally-funded program that promotes school readiness in children from low-income families, are shown in data from previous years to score a little bit below their ELC counterparts, but still score well above the state benchmark for reading readiness. During the pandemic, all students started lower, but the gap between Head Start students and other participants widened compared to previous years.
Jill Dent, the bureau director of early childhood for the Mississippi Department of Education, primarily attributed this difference to virtual learning. While it did vary locally, she said more Head Start students were virtual than other ELC students.
Despite this, Dent expressed confidence that students will be back on track with their reading scores soon.
“This next kindergarten year is really going to help them,” she said. “They’ll have a solid full year in school, and I expect they’ll catch up and be back on track by the end of the year.”
Leigh Ann Reynolds, director of early childhood for the Sunflower County Consolidated School District, has also identified ways that the gaps can be made up. The Delta Health Alliance, which operates Head Starts in the county, also has a summer program which she said has been shown to get children to the correct benchmarks by the end of the summer.
This discrepancy may be resolved soon, as every Head Start in Mississippi will be fully returning to in-person instruction this fall according to the Mississippi Head Start Association. Nita Thompson, executive director of the organization, said it was a combination of federal guidance and local decision making whether to keep students virtual over the last two years, but that being able to resume home visits and engage parents in the classroom will help students get back on track.
Thompson also pointed out that there are still significant benefits to participating in pre-K programs, including emotional and cognitive development and learning to form relationships outside the home. Research has also shown that participation in early learning decreases the likelihood of students getting held back and increases the likelihood of graduating from high school.
Thompson said that a student’s early learning experience is not only impacted by time spent in person, but also by community resources like access to transportation, parks and playgrounds, healthy food options, and healthcare.
“All of those things will impact development, and particularly attendance, and we know that there is a direct correlation between attendance and growth,” she said.
Micayla Tatum, associate director of early childhood policy at Mississippi First, elaborated on this point, saying Head Start, by design, serves students from a low socio-economic status, which research shows means they are more likely to struggle with literacy because of higher levels of stress. She also said that low socio-economic status individuals were also more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic, which results in many Head Start students needing additional assistance to achieve at the same level as their peers.
“Families recognize that their children haven’t learned as much these past two years as they would have in a full-time program, so I think families are also ready to re-engage and connect to make sure their children make those gains,” Thompson said.