Natalie Jones, 2, paints at Mississippi University for Women's Child and Parent Development Center, which focuses on a curriculum that prepares children for kindergarten. She is the daughter of Amber and Joshua Jones. Photo by: Courtesy photo
July 30, 2019 10:05:50 AM
Lowndes County is a step closer to being certified by Excel by 5, a community-based certification group aiming to prepare Mississippi children from birth to age 5 for success in education.
At the local coalition's first quarterly meeting Thursday, group members -- ranging from preschool and kindergarten teachers to child care providers and concerned citizens with children and grandchildren -- gathered to discuss the group's participation in Little Hands, Big Trucks, United Way of Lowndes County's annual fundraiser geared toward parents with young children, in October.
Although the main attraction of Little Hands, Big Trucks is the fire trucks, big rigs and other large vehicles that children can explore, Excel by 5 coalition members wanted to bring something a little more informational to the event. They plan to set up tables with information on everything from seatbelt safety to preschool health screenings, all with the goal of giving parents a 'one-stop shop' of information and resources for their children.
It was a discussion that left Excel by 5 Executive Director Eileen Beazley, who is assisting the Lowndes County certification group for the duration of the process -- which can take up to two years, but may take Lowndes County as little as 18 months -- "extremely impressed."
Typically, she told the group, coalitions pursuing Excel by 5 certification have to come up with their own community events and publicize them while also trying to attract child-based organizations like Head Start to the community. In Lowndes County's case, there are already events in which Excel by 5 can take part and "more than enough" organizations serving children under 5. Instead, Excel by 5 coalition's main task is increasing awareness of what those organizations are doing, both internally and in the community, and consolidating those efforts.
"In your case, you don't have to reinvent anything," Beazley told the coalition during Thursday's meeting. "You just need to make the community aware of what's already there. And by getting involved in this community event, you've already taken that first step. I'm impressed."
Excel by 5 is a Jackson-based nonprofit that helps identify gaps in community resources and helps local organizations meet children's needs with regard to education, health care, safety and child care. Communities that are Excel by 5-certified are eligible for grants and other funding.
Mississippi University for Women Director of Child and Parent Development Penny Mansell, who serves as the certification manager for the group in Lowndes County, told The Dispatch she considers Lowndes County fortunate to already have so many resources in place for young children.
"We have so many wonderful organizations like child care centers, the Imagination Library (a nonprofit that provides free books to children 5-and-under), the public library system, but our community's specific challenge is how to make people aware of all those resources that are available to them," she said. "So by ... finding ways to get involved in events that already exist instead of holding our own, it'll be easier for us to listen to parents and families and caretakers of kids that are ages birth to 5 so we can understand what they want and need. That's why we started this process (of becoming a certified community) in the first place."
In order to have Lowndes County certified as an Excel by 5 community, the coalition must work with other organizations to host or be part of community events. The organization must also print a resource guide that would list all community resources for children under age 5.
"Our goal with the resource guide is to equip parents and people working with kids to make sure they're ready for kindergarten and are getting the care they need in the meantime," Mansell said. "We don't always know how to best serve a child or family, so the resource guide is so important for that. ... We want to make it so anyone could hand this guide to a parent. ... It's just a function of putting that information into the hands of people working with children."
'Inviting everyone to the conversation'
Although Oktibbeha County has been Excel by 5-certified for almost 10 years, Program Manager Ellen Goodman remembers her county's certification process like it was yesterday.
Like Lowndes County, her coalition focused on local events, although they were often in charge of hosting their own, she said. Almost since the beginning, Oktibbeha County's Excel by 5 coalition has hosted a back-to-school event for parents of preschoolers, who can get information about important pre-kindergarten educational milestones, health screenings and more.
"That was our first big event and it's something parents have come to rely on," she said. "I remember that was one of the biggest needs and that's why we started off. Parents needed somewhere to go to get that information."
Goodman also works for the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District's Early Learning Collaborative, which provides school-readiness services for 4-year-olds during the year before they start kindergarten. Because of her connections to both SOCSD teachers and child care providers through Excel by 5, she began organizing meetings with the two groups where they could discuss with one another - and with parents - what children need to succeed in kindergarten.
"We try to get the child care providers to the kindergarten sites and we try to have them tell us what they're seeing in the children coming into kindergarten," Goodman said. "Not just where they're excelling, but where they're struggling too. ... Then child care providers know what they're missing and parents can understand what teachers need from them. ... The longer we've done this, the more we see kids coming to kindergarten more prepared to learn, and parents of those children know exactly how to approach teachers and continue that learning at home. I've heard it from teachers and principals and I've seen it in the kids that leave (ELC). So it definitely makes a difference."
Mansell plans to do something similar in Lowndes County, she said. In her experience, child care centers are often left out of discussions surrounding childhood education. She hopes Excel by 5 can change that.
"Once we can get information shared between child care providers and kindergarten teachers, it can funnel down to the parents," she said. "It's about inviting everyone to the conversation and getting the community invested. We weren't sure at the start how that was going to work out, but we've been really happy with the response so far."
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