Pre-K programs good investment

By TIM KALICH,

The realization is slowly gaining traction in Mississippi that if this state really wants to make a serious dent in reducing its chronic academic deficiencies, it has to start working at it sooner than kindergarten.

It’s widely accepted that children born into economically self-sufficient homes, with educated parents and a rich verbal and literary environment, are going to have a leg up on children with none of these advantages.

Mississippi has begun investing in public pre-kindergarten programs, but they are still in their infancy as far as both funding and proven strategies.

There is, however, already an early-learning model that is producing dramatic, measurable results, and it’s just 30 miles down the road in Indianola.

In that Sunflower County town, Delta Health Alliance, a federally funded nonprofit organization, has been operating an education initiative for five years targeted at children from low-income, mostly minority, largely single-parent households — the demographics that traditionally have produced poor results in school and lots of hand-wringing from educators and community activists on what to do about it.

The Indianola Promise Community initiative aims to have an impact on young people from birth to age 24 — from “cradle to career,” as Carolyn Willis, vice president for educational programs at Delta Health Alliance, puts it.

Its most impressive work so far has been with preschoolers and those in the first couple of grades of school.

Funded by $3 million a year in U.S. Department of Education funding, the initiative includes a plethora of programs: from home visitation to the mothers of newborns, to one-on-one work with children starting at age three, to free age-appropriate books, to summer camps that prepare children for pre-school or kindergarten. Not only are Delta Health Alliance staff members involved, but so are the countywide school district and various community entities.

Willis said the Promise Community’s internal research has not been able to pinpoint yet which of the programs produced the best results, but cumulatively the more programs that touch a child, the more the child is ready for school and to perform at a level much higher than what is typical for someone from the same socioeconomic background.

At Lockard Elementary School, the school where most of the children from the Promise Community Neighborhood first go, the kindergarten readiness score has risen in three years from 488 to 543. The Mississippi Department of Education says that 530 is the magic number. Students who enter kindergarten scoring that well or better in most cases will wind up being proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

There are 148 public elementary schools in the state, according to Willis, with a kindergarten program and similar demographics to Lockard. Only two of them scored higher on the kindergarten readiness assessment.

 

The ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade has been a major point of emphasis for Gov. Phil Bryant and the GOP leadership. On the test that students must pass in order to be promoted to fourth grade, in 2015, 64 percent of students considered at-risk in Indianola failed on the first attempt, compared to only 4 percent of the children not at-risk.

The following year, Delta Health Alliance placed “literacy fellows” in the schools to work one-on-one with at-risk kids. The passage rate jumped to 64 percent, and then 73 percent the next year.

Willis believes numbers like these prove the Indianola Promise Community initiative is on the right track, and that its model could be replicated throughout the Delta.

Concentrating on a child’s early years was a change for Willis, who grew up in Sidon, still lives in Greenwood and had worked as a manager and a trainer at Viking Range for a decade before joining Delta Health Alliance. Even when she moved from manufacturing to the nonprofit sector, she first concentrated on trying to improve the region’s workforce at the back end of the pipeline. Now she’s focusing on the front end, where she’s convinced that if students from high-poverty areas get that extra nurturing through 12th grade, it will produce the academic results and the economic boom the Delta has long found elusive.

“What we’re doing is creating that pipeline of services from birth through workforce development ... a pipeline in which you have no gaps,” she said.

Presently, the Indianola Promise Community works with 2,000 children, three-fourths of them five years old or younger. Although Willis was not able to provide immediately how much per child the program costs, my back-of-the-napkin calculation is around $1,500 a year.

 Is that too much? Doesn’t seem so when you consider the costs of repeating grades in the early years, dropping out in the later ones or growing up to being barely employable.

Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of the Greenwood Commonwealth. He can be reached at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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