Educators to legislators: Put your money where your expectations are

Many South Mississippi educators see the need to begin students’ education as soon as possible, even before kindergarten. But a lack of state funding for pre-K instruction has left them stymied as to how to increase achievements without the money to do so.

Gov. Phil Bryant signed Senate Bill 2341, also known as the third-grade reading gate, in 2013. The law requires the state’s third-graders to meet reading-comprehension requirements to advance to fourth grade. Since that time, school districts have scrutinized their curriculum to find ways to pass as many students as possible.

The Mississippi Department of Education has deployed educators with expertise in literacy to many school districts to work with students or to instruct teachers on what to teach. Educators have placed a significant priority on starting children in school before kindergarten even begins.

The key to increasing achievement is to get to the students early, Ocean Springs Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter said.

“The earlier we can get to them, the better,” Coleman-Potter said. “I wish we could start teaching all of them before kindergarten. Those are formative years.

“How they do at those early ages can tell us a lot about how they’ll perform in the future. It’ll tell us where we need to focus.”

Familiar problem

But educators say there’s a familiar problem: Funding. Some area superintendents said the state should fund public preschool classes, especially if they expect Mississippi students to live up to standards the legislature has enacted with third-grade testing and achievement-based school districts.

Connections between pre-K learning and future academic performance is so established, the Department of Education uses kindergarten assessment scores to determine the likelihood a student will go on to pass the third-grade reading gate. When kindergartners arrive in class next week, they’ll be expected to meet an assessment benchmark set by the state.

The Education Department said: “Eighty-four percent of students at the beginning of kindergarten with a scale score of 530 or above on STAR Early Literacy meet or exceed the criterion for proficient reading at the end of third grade, which was set by a national standard-setting committee.”

Results of the classification assessment in 2014 showed nearly half of all kindergarten students fell below the benchmark. The established benchmark represents a 70 percent mastery of early reading skills.

State doesn’t fund pre-K

In the United States, funding for preschool and pre-K instruction comes from three places: Local sources, the state or the federal government. Privately funded programs may be church-run preschools, parent-run preschools, preschools managed by nonprofit organizations or for-profit child-care centers. Though it is likely a significant portion of children attend these programs, no system exists to track enrollment in privately funded programs.

Across the country, states have played a large role in supporting pre-K instruction. Georgia established the first universal, state-funded pre-K program in 1995. By 2010, 39 other states provided some form of funding for pre-K programs. Mississippi is one of 10 states that doesn’t fund pre-K programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The Moss Point School District has applied for and received a federal grant to fund preschool outreach. The funding will help one of the lowest-performing school districts in South Mississippi reach out to preschool-aged children. If the school district doesn’t do better in at least seven benchmarks set by the state Department of Education, it faces the possibility of a state takeover in coming years.

Superintendent Shannon Vincent said about 80 children will take pre-K classes beginning this school year. She said she’s thankful federal funding will help, but said she wishes she could get funding to enroll all of the 130 or so children who will enter kindergarten next year.

“Over half of our 3- and 4-year-olds will have the opportunity to get preschool instruction before they start kindergarten,” Vincent said. “This is a big deal. And we need it. Still, if we had full state funding, we could get all those children involved.”

High standards, funding important

The difference between children who get pre-K instruction and children who do not is “monumental,” Harrison County School District Superintendent Roy Gill said.

“Children come into kindergarten and there’s a wide (range) between who’s prepared and who’s not,” Gill said. “If we want to improve a student’s proficiency in reading, we need to get to them early.”

Gill said he doesn’t disagree with the state setting higher expectations for students. It’s an expected part of being an educator.

“We have no problem with raising expectations and standards,” he said. “The larger goal is to prepare our students for the world and to allow them to compete for those jobs. We think it’d be beneficial if the state helped, that’s all.”

In Ocean Springs, Coleman-Potter said several area churches provide options. Still, a large percentage of students simply don’t have access or aren’t brought up in a family well-off enough to pay for it, she said.

“I believe it’s essential for us to put more effort in the pre-K curriculum. Children, through no fault of their own, are at a disadvantage when they enter kindergarten. One way to level the playing field would be for the state to help all pre-K students.”