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Mississippi lacking in pre-kindergarten funding

Mississippi lacking in pre-kindergarten funding

HATTIESBURG (AP) — It’s rare for Southern states to top any list of educational accomplishment. But a recent report by the Southern Education Foundation bore welcome news — the South leads the nation in pre-kindergarten education.

Perhaps unsurprisingly to residents weary of reading of Mississippi’s educational failings, the Magnolia state is the sole exception, the only Southern state without a state-supported pre-K program.

“Mississippi as a state is doing a very poor job of supporting pre-K education,” said James Hutto, Petal School District superintendent. “We’re the worst in the nation.”

A fledgling attempt by state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds to launch a $10 million pre-K program was rejected this spring by Gov. Haley Barbour, who countered with a proposal, rejected by the state Legislature, to designate $5 million in grant money that would be available to public and private entities for early childhood education and care, according to the report.

In the absence of state funding, Petal, like some other local districts, has crafted its own pre-K program through the judicious use of grant money, Hutto said.

“What we’ve done in our district is use local funding and grants, and by the grace of God we’ve been able to sustain some programs,” he said. “But we really get no help from the state level.”

The Hattiesburg Public School District, Superintendent Annie Wimbish said, has worked closely with P.A.C.E. Head Start.

“With them we have a pre-K program in every elementary school and in our high school, but that’s only a minimum of students who could use it,” she said.

Both superintendents stress the utility of pre-K education in preparing students for the classroom.

“We get kids who come to school who have traveled, have had those kinds of experiences and have vocabularies that are unbelievable,” Hutto said. “We have other kids who come to school with low language skills. We put all those kids in the same classroom together and wonder why some lag behind.”

A pre-K program can also accustom children to the more rigid school environment in a low-stakes setting, Wimbish said.

“When children start pre-K in our schools, transition to kindergarten is much smoother, because they have learned the school culture,” she said. “At home it’s not as structured, it’s much more informal. And there’s really a formal curriculum to pre-K because if they come into the door behind, they’re already behind just to get in the basic race.”

The key element of Petal’s pre-K is the Parents As Teachers program, Hutto said, designed to help parents understand what children need to be successful.

“Our Parents as Teachers program is designed to help parents learn how important it is to read to children, that they need to have mobiles in their cribs, they need to hear words read at a young age, they need to hear certain kinds of music,” he said. “All of this is important in brain development, and many parents just don’t know that. When you didn’t receive that as a child, you don’t give it to your kids, and it becomes a vicious cycle. We try to break out of that.”

With state funding, Hutto said, that program, currently serving about 150 district children, could be expanded and made permanent. He said grant money must be obtained each year, and some grant programs carry expiration dates.

Wimbish said that she, too, would expand her district’s pre-K program were funding available. She said ideally, the district would work with churches and other community organizations to offer pre-K programs.