A need has been identified in Mississippi that affects education, business and economics. Awareness of the need is nothing new, but a deeper understanding of its impact has spurred a group of business and education leaders to hit the road and spread the word.
The Mississippi Economic Council”s 10-city Next Steps Tour stopped in Columbus today with the goal of alerting business leaders to the need for early childhood education.
“You spend a lot of time dealing with dropout prevention,” Blake Wilson, president of the MEC, told a group of Golden Triangle business people at the Wingate Inn. “You need to start putting your time into the front end.”
Wilson has been traveling the state with a small group of education and economic experts urging business communities to become more involved with pre-kindergarten education initiatives. He says the detriments of a Mississippi early education system which receives just $3 million in funding from the Legislature, compared to hundreds of millions of dollars for many neighboring states, are becoming more evident.
Science has shown the greatest rate of learning and development in children”s brains takes place in the first three years of their lives. Furthermore, children who are exposed to nurturing from highly educated individuals are more likely to excel in their own education.
Wilson acknowledges parents are a child”s first teachers, but one in five Mississippi children are in child care, and child care providers need only a high school diploma or GED to work in the field.
“Our kids are being put in front of TVs. They need play and be interacted with, talked to, read to and put in a better position to learn to read,” said Wilson.
A study comparing a random sampling of Mississippi pre-kindergarten programs, whether Head Start or private church day cares, were all “below the needed quality,” he said.
To drive home the point, Dr. Laurie Smith, a former teacher and executive director of Mississippi Building Blocks, an early education curriculum advocacy group, discussed the widening gap in early education among children living in poverty and those from middle- or upper-class families.
“Nine months in age is the first difference we can measure in children from low socioeconomic status versus middle to high income families,” said Smith. “A high-income child also knows roughly twice as many vocabulary words by the age of 3 than that of a low-income family.”
Smith stressed her aim was not to advocate mandatory preschool or to request money to fund Mississippi Building Blocks. The purpose of the tour is simply to get business people involved in early education for the sake of Mississippi”s education and business future.
“If everybody made a decision to impact early childhood education, what a difference we could make,” said Smith.
Wilson hoped that, through the tour, the traveling group could “engage a thousand champions for early education in the business community and use the private sector to approach filling in the gap that exists.”
Mike Petro, vice president of business and government relations for the nationwide Committee for Economic Development, briefly addressed the meeting to urge Mississippians to take advantage of two assets.
“You”ve got two weapons. You”ve got engaged business people and wonderful (citizens),” he said.
Wilson hopes Mississippi Building Blocks” system of monitoring progress of pre-kindergarten students could be used as a model for measuring success. The business communities” role would be creating a network of awareness and resources regarding early education.
Dennis Erby, a retired Columbus community activist, said a similar program was recently instituted at his church, United Christian Baptist Church in Columbus, using computers to track the educational progress of 23 children between ages 3-4.
“I”m just totally delighted,” Erby said of the attention Next Steps was bringing to early education statewide. “About a year ago we started doing exactly what they were talking about. We are, as a state, starting to realize and understand the importance.”
Dr. Becky Smith, an economics instructor at Mississippi State University, said that understanding is crucial.
“They wanted to bring understanding to the important relationship between education and economic development,” said Smith. “It may seem obvious, but in fact we haven”t acted like it matters. People forget how important education is in the workforce.”
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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