JeMira Nichols entered kindergarten in this sleepy Delta town way ahead of her classmates. She knew colors, letters and numbers. She spoke in full sentences. She could discuss books comfortably.
Until she started school in August, JeMira spent nine hours each week day at Little Angels Day Care, a well-equipped one-story center that participates in a largely privately funded school-readiness program called .
“She would not be where she is right now if it weren’t for Little Angels,” said JeMira’s 43-year-old grandmother, Mary Davis, who assembles tools at a nearby factory and helps raise JeMira and her younger sister while their mother attends college out of state. “They have an instructor just like regular school. They do math and reading and they color and draw. And they write all the time.”
In this poorest region of the poorest state in the country, where there’s little industry, few job prospects and many obstacles for children, Building Blocks has helped transform a wildly uneven and scattered network of some 1,685 early childhood centers — including Little Angels.
Mississippi needs the help: It has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation and some of the lowest standardized test scores. Licensing and oversight of small, family child care homes in Mississippi rank in the country. And it’s the only state in the South that doesn’t fund pre-kindergarten.
Nationally, children from low-income families are also lagging; almost half are , according to Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit organization that promotes quality care.
'These kids are going to have a better shot'
In Mississippi, the private sector is taking action. Recognizing the state’s dire situation, businesspeople, philanthropists and corporate sponsors started raising $6 million for Building Block’s pilot program five years ago, hoping it might provide a partial solution. Over 500 early childhood programs in 31 counties have since benefitted from free equipment, a research-based curriculum, training for teachers and parents, and business advice.
“Thanks to this program — which is scalable — these kids are going to have a better shot when they walk into kindergarten,” said the former president and CEO of , who helped fund Building Blocks. Early results are promising, and the program’s backers now plan to ask the state legislature for $5 million to expand.
The proposed expansion, though, comes at a time of yet another early childhood crisis in Mississippi. Only 35 percent of low-income, working families who qualify for state and federally subsidized child care, including , are being served. There’s a waiting list of 8,050 children who would love to attend a center like Little Angels, but their families cannot afford the rates and they can’t get a voucher from the state, said Carol Burnett, founder and director of .
The price Mary Davis pays for her granddaughter JeMira’s full-time care—$78.50 a week, including three hot meals — is out of reach for many in the Delta. It is only slightly less, annualized, than the $4,620 for an infant in a full-time child care center in Mississippi. Median family income a year .
Celia Ward, owner of Little Angels, gets choked up when she looks at her well-equipped—but partially empty — rooms. She remembers the day she opened a letter from Building Blocks three years ago that promised unheard-of resources for the needy population she serves.
“It said we would get a mentor and materials, and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, thank you, Lord,’ ” Ward recalled on a recent steamy afternoon. While she talked, trained mentors helped her staff guide toddlers through seven carefully labeled learning areas in a classroom, each one emphasizing different numbers and letters.
The children recited the five words of the week — “interview,” “enormous,” “gigantic,” “teamwork” and “thankful” — and sounded out new ones. They also sang songs, finger-painted and listened to The Lion and the Mouse, the book of the day.
Weaving in literacy
Literacy is at the heart of the Building Blocks curriculum and gets woven into all activities. “Play is how they learn — it’s really their language,” said Building Blocks director Laurie Smith, who can often be found playing with children and reading to them on the floor.
Countless reports have shown that the first five years in a child’s life are the most critical for learning and developing language skills, Smith said.
Conditions in centers that have not benefited from Building Blocks support can be abysmal. During a reporter’s recent unannounced visit to one such center in the Delta, toddlers sat in a darkened room watching television news surrounded by a dirty mop, a bucket of water, and used diapers sitting in an open pail. A stench of rotten food permeated the room.
“I find this the most sad part of my job,” said Smith, who sees many families choose substandard centers because they cost less and because they don’t receive state vouchers that subsidize child care. While families earning below 85 percent of the state median income all qualify for vouchers, the program doesn’t have enough money to serve anyone earning more than 50 percent of the state median income.
Smith is optimistic that deficient centers can be turned around. She shared notes from Keri Wright, a former Building Blocks mentor charged with training teachers in the southeastern part of the state, documenting frightful conditions that improved over time with help.
“I can’t believe the unsanitary practices I witnessed,” wrote Wright, who spent three years working for Building Blocks. Children seemed bored, few of their toys operated properly, they had no access to books or blocks, and they were never taken outside, Wright reported.
“The teacher did not converse with the children, or even sing,” Wright wrote. “She did not interact with the children other than to help them in the bathroom and say a blessing before eating.”
Skinning catfish pays more
Child care centers in the state have no consistent education standards and require nothing more than a from the Mississippi Department of Health—and only then if they care for seven or more children. Licenses are not hard to come by, and inspections typically take place once a year or even less frequently. There are no regulations requiring that early childhood teachers be licensed or possess any degree beyond a high school diploma or GED in Mississippi.
Indeed, those who skin catfish in a Delta processing plant can earn more money than the state’s early child care providers, whose mean wage is $8.69 per hour. To get hired, they need only to be 18, have three years of experience caring for children under the age of 13, or obtain 15 hours of training. Few receive health or retirement benefits, or paid vacation.
Poor or non-existent early childhood education experiences contribute to an unbroken cycle of poverty in Mississippi, where thousands of white families decamped long ago for private institutions, leaving highly segregated schools. One in four Mississippi public high-school students will drop out before graduation—and rates are even higher in the Delta. In recent years, one of every 14 kindergarteners and one of every 15 first-graders in Mississippi were deemed unready for the next grade-level, according to the Southern Education Foundation.
Between 1998 and 2008, the state spent over because thousands of unprepared school children had to repeat a grade. Mississippi would save almost $37 million a year in community-college remediation and lost earnings if all high-school students who graduated were ready for college, according to the , a Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy group.
If the state funds Building Blocks, the program could add more materials, mentors, teacher training and scholarships, parenting classes and a literacy curriculum for as many as 2,500 additional children, Smith said.
Preliminary results from the first three years of Building Blocks as measured against a control group are promising, both in gains on school-readiness measures and in social and emotional development.
A push to expand Building Blocks comes as momentum is building to improve early childhood education in the state. The Mississippi Education Department recently to establish model early childhood classrooms with priority given to high-poverty areas in public-school districts.
Early childhood advocates are gathering this week in Jackson, Miss., to talk about ways to improve early learning at a summit sponsored by , another privately funded effort to help communities boost educational opportunities for the state’s littlest learners. Also this week, the is holding a conference to discuss an array of solutions and ways to improve early learning.
'This is not a policy solution'
There remains some skepticism, though. Proposals for state-funded pre-k in Mississippi have failed repeatedly. Politicians have argued it would be too expensive. Others insist that parents and churches should better prepare children for school.
Even some who praise Building Blocks wonder if the program can go far enough to make a dent in school readiness throughout the state.
“To me, this is not a policy solution. It’s not a direct service to children like a pre-k program,’’ said , a national early childhood expert who helped craft Building Blocks and now oversees early childhood programs for the . “State dollars need to improve and impact systems.”
The state is also going to have to find a way to reduce the waiting list for working families in need of child care, Burnett said. “If Building Blocks helps the [child care] centers, but no parents can afford to send their kids there, what have we accomplished?”
Jill Dent, director of the office for children and youth at the Mississippi Department of Human Services, said the waiting list of 8,000-plus children is due to both federal cuts and the loss of stimulus funding. “We are trying to serve as many children as we possibly can,” she said. “We want to get them back in care.” The state currently finances early childhood care for 18,000 children a month.
Smith said advocates of Building Blocks, including business advisers and military leaders, will fight to keep centers open by speaking out in favor of reducing waiting lists to serve more families, and set an example by constantly improving quality.
At Little Angels, that fight can’t come quickly enough. Ward cannot keep her doors open if more parents don’t sign up.
“I would love to take in more children. We have the room for them and a great program, but they [the families] don’t have the money,” Ward said. “And if children can’t get in a program, they are lost.”
This story, "A solution to lost early childhood opportunities in Mississippi?" was produced by , a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.