MISSISSIPPI FORUM



By Dr. Laurie J. Smith and Rhea Williams-Bishop

At a time when the stock market is slumping, Mississippians are making the smartest investment possible in an uncertain economy: providing a better start in life for some of our most vulnerable children.

Together with national foundations, Mississippi’s business and charitable communities have contributed $5 million -- and aim to raise a total of $10 million -- for an early childhood education program that will reap returns in an improved business climate, a better-prepared workforce, and more good-paying jobs. On top of that, we’ll strengthen our social fabric and our state’s finances, as more vulnerable young people are put on a path that leads to productive lives and responsible citizenship, not dependency and anti-social behavior.

Quality early care and preschool aren’t only educational priorities -- they’re economic priorities. When corporate chief executive officers and site selectors decide where to locate or expand a business, they explore whether communities have skilled workforces, good schools, and high-quality early care. Good school systems and early childhood programs not only produce and prepare capable workers but also attract and retain workers who don’t want to worry about the quality of education that their children are receiving.

These reasons explain why, the Children’s Defense Fund, Momentum Mississippi, and Leadership Mississippi in coordination with the Mississippi Economic Council, have created a new early childhood education pilot project. The program, Mississippi Building Blocks, is designed to improve early childhood education by enhancing the quality of early care and education provided to young children beginning with infants and toddlers. The goals: improving teaching in these centers, providing educational and developmentally appropriate materials for children, preparing parents to play more of a part in their children’s education, and ensuring that youngsters are better equipped to enter kindergarten. This program is supported by private funding partners, including Mississippi Power Foundation and its president Anthony Topazi, The Phil Hardin Foundation and the Barksdale Reading Institute.

To achieve these ambitious goals, Mississippi Building Blocks has a detailed and attainable action plan. The centers will be provided with materials, resources, and business advice to improve their programs and, yes, their profitability. Mentors will work in the centers’ classrooms to help the teachers.

Parent advocates will visit the parents in their homes to help them help their kids. As with any sound business venture, the results will be measured. A statistically valid sample of students will be tracked over time to determine the outcomes and to decide what works and what doesn’t, and what needs to be improved.

There is real reason to hope that the results will be beneficial not only to the children and their families but to our entire state and its educational system and economic environment. Better parenting skills for mothers and fathers; improved school readiness for entering kindergartners; reduced drop-out rates and improved graduation rates among high school students; more good-paying jobs for workers and better-prepared employees for businesses; and less crime, less dependency and more prosperity for Mississippi -- all these outcomes will begin to be possible if all of us -- business people, parents and educators -- do our part to make this program succeed.

We couldn’t help but be inspired and encouraged when we attended a statewide conference on early childhood education in Jackson at the end of last year. Attended by educators, children’s advocates and business leaders and assisted by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the conference helped to create a consensus that investing in early childhood programs is absolutely essential for Mississippi.

In addition to the efforts of business leaders, education professionals, and children’s advocates, state and local government leaders will need to take further actions to ensure that all the young children in our state have access to safe, affordable, high-quality early education that prepares them for kindergarten so that they can succeed in school and become lifelong learners. As Governor Barbour declared at the conference, “the goals of this all are consistent with the other goals we have going on in our state to build a better Mississippi dropout recovery, workforce development and career readiness.”

With Mississippi Building Blocks, we’ve made a good start towards giving all of our children a good start in schooling and in life. Let’s all build this pilot project into a successful program -- and build that program until all of our children are prepared to succeed in school, at work, and in every aspect of their lives.
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Smith is executive director for Mississippi Building Blocks. Williams-Bishop is deputy director of the Children’s Defense Fund.
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Copyright (C) 2009 by the Mississippi Forum 3/09

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