News Column

State of the Region: Education chief calls for greater emphasis on pre-K

May 23, 2014

By Chris Kieffer, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo

May 23--TUPELO -- At the annual gathering of business and community leaders from Northeast Mississippi, the head of the state's school system highlighted the importance of educating the youngest residents.

"Early childhood education is critical," State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said during Thursday's 18th annual State of the Region meeting at the BancorpSouth Conference Center.

Wright was among three speakers at the event, which focuses upon the 17-county area of Northeast Mississippi. Tennessee Valley Authority President and CEO Bill Johnson spoke about TVA's role in the region, and Philip Walker of the Walker Collaborative noted the value of cultural heritage tourism.

The event is sponsored by the CREATE Foundation'sCommission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi. It focuses on improving education and aiding economic development.

"We can help create an environment where all of the people in Northeast Mississippi can get an education, can go into the workforce and can make a positive impact on their communities," said Commission Chair Glenn McCullough.

The need for high-quality pre-kindergarten is more important in Mississippi with its high poverty rate, Wright said. By early childhood education, she said she is referring to the period from birth to third grade.

"You have a lot of little ones out there, and I've seen the power pre-K education can have in their lives," she said.

To ensure more children have access to high-quality programs will require more money from the state, Wright said. In 2013, the Legislature appropriated $3 million, the first public funds the state has spent on early-childhood education. That money was used to fund collaborative efforts in 11 communities to improve programs and access.

This year, legislators appropriated another $3 million, which will continue the program but will not expand it. Wright said there is a high need and demand to spread those grants to other communities.

She suggested the state form a foundation that could provide funds for various education initiatives, citing a model she saw when she worked in the Washington, D.C., school district. That could be a way to provide more money for pre-K programs, she said, adding that the education department would work with Head Start and existing providers to ensure greater access and higher quality.

"How do we reach out and help existing providers get better at their craft?" she said.

Programs do not need to be mandatory, Wright said, adding that if the quality is high, demand for participation will follow.

"I believe if you build it, they will come," she said. "If you have high-quality pre-K programs, you will have a waiting list."

This fall will be the first time the state will give the same test to all incoming kindergartners to measure their skills and needs. It will be the first time for a common screening test, which Wright said will provide a better picture of those students' skills and needs and also will help assess existing pre-K programs. The MDE will create an office focused solely on early childhood education, she said.

During her remarks, Wright also:

--Spoke of her support for the Common Core State Standards, which she said would set a higher standard for students. Districts would maintain flexibility to create their curriculum, she said.

--Called for the creation of a superintendent's academy that could train aspiring school district leaders and support existing ones.

--Said the state needs to find ways to provide access for more students to take Advanced Placement and dual enrollment/ dual credit classes.

Johnson said TVA's mission is much like CREATE's -- to improve the quality of life. He said TVA provides power to 28 distributors who serve 83,000 businesses and 334,000 homes in Mississippi alone.

"We provide the tools of opportunity," Johnson said. "Our best course is to be true to our heritage and to our founding principles. ... low-cost energy, economic development and environmental stewardship is what we're all about."

TVA has been a part of retaining or creating 5,500 jobs and $1.2 billion in investment in the past 15 months in Northeast Mississippi, Johnson added.

Walker touted the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Alliance, which comprises all or parts of 30 counties bordered by Interstate 55, Tennessee, Alabama and Highway 14.

Heritage tourists -- or cultural tourists -- spend more money than other tourists.

But the region's focus on American Indian heritage, African-American heritage, the Civil War and the arts will be a calling card for those higher-spending tourists.

Walker said communities need to work together and think regionally to benefit everyone.


Dennis Seid contributed to this story.


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Source: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo)

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