Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

Determined to start a free prekindergarten program primarily for 4-year-olds from low-income families, community leaders in Gulfport, Mississippi, weren’t deterred by the lack of government funds or school space. They forged ahead using private donations and locations.

“We are tenacious. We’re not letting anybody stand in our way. Pre-K is key to getting our kids school-ready and reading on grade level by third grade,” says Cynthia Minton Walker, director of South Mississippi PreK4Ward, a nonprofit also overseeing Gulfport’s grade-level reading campaign.

Begun in 2010 with one classroom of 20 students, PreK4Ward today provides free full-day preschool to 132 children across two Gulf Coast counties at seven sites — a school, church, two Boys & Girls clubs and three private child care centers. Some children are eligible but not able to be served by Head Start, the federal early childhood program for low-income families. Others just miss eligibility.

Mississippi students have long scored at or near the bottom nationally on standardized reading and math tests. The Gulf Coast’s pre-K challenge is particularly acute because it receives no state funds from Mississippi’s small preschool program. Begun in 2013, the state program serves a tiny fraction of Mississippi’s 4-year-olds and focuses on the poorest regions including the Delta. In 2014, Mississippi’s application for a federal preschool grant was declined.

PreK4Ward, as a result, relies primarily on funding from local businesses, nonprofits and foundations, including an anonymous business donor, United Way of South Mississippi, Coca Cola, Mississippi Power Co. and television station WLOX.

“Parents and the business community are supportive because they see what it’s doing for children,” says Walker. While Mississippi’s first statewide assessment of kindergarten readiness in 2014 found that two-thirds of students enter school unprepared to learn, PreK4Ward children scored relatively well, she notes.

Four school districts involved in PreK4Ward also provide support ranging from in-kind donations to shared data to advice on good retiring teachers to hire. One district provided program funding this year.

PreK4Ward rose from the lingering devastation caused in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Two groups — one led by then-Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel, another by young business leaders — landed on early childhood education as a way to help fix “problems that haunt those of us trying to raise families,” says Walker.

“This area had been beat up, which gave us the chance to look at what we need. It took us back to Mississippi having among the nation’s highest dropout, teen pregnancy, incarceration and poverty rates. Twenty-seven percent of our adults are not literate.”

Another challenge — limited public school space for PreK4Ward classrooms serving up to 20 students — has been addressed partly by partnering with child care centers. PreK4Ward provides the certified teacher, assistant and curriculum. The center provides some students. Children already attending the center for a fee are chosen by lottery to join PreK4Ward, free-of-charge.

PreK4Ward pays the centers a small fee for space as well as supplies and materials for other classrooms. The centers also gain some new 4-year-olds whose parents opt to pay for before- and after-school care. And they attract new younger children whose parents hope to later get a free PreK4Ward spot. “It becomes a win-win situation,” says Walker, noting that some for-profit child care providers felt financially threatened by the prospect of additional free pre-K programs.

At all PreK4Ward sites, parents must attend four of eight workshops, provided at multiple times and online to accommodate parents working several jobs. “They weren’t averse to doing the classes. They just didn’t know how to fit them into their lives,” says Walker.

Although at least 20 more pre-K classes are needed, PreK4Ward expansion is unlikely without state lawmakers approving more funds, says Walker. “Now our task is to get them to understand the importance.” 

For more information, contact Cynthia Minton Walker at 228-224-5715 or zaccinassociates@hotmail.com.Photos: PreK4Ward; Publication Date: Winter 2015 To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net.

Does your community have a pre-K initiative? If so, share your experience in the comments box!

 Want more? Check out:  

  • Bridgeport, Connecticut offers Kick Off to Kindergarten, a free summer program designed to introduce literacy, numbers, group play and more to pre-K students in an effort to ensure all children are kindergarten-ready and able to read proficiently by the end of third grade.
  • San Antonio, Texas serves 187 4-year-olds in a Dual Language Head Start program that uses a “two-way” model, with each class half Spanish-speakers learning English and half English-speakers learning Spanish. Instruction is 90 percent in Spanish, 10 percent in English, and enables both groups to pick up each other’s language and culture.
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Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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Comments

  • This is a wonderful story about tenacity and passion for a cause. I love what you are doing in Gulfport.
  • Congratulations on an exciting initiative. Pleased to hear you are partnering with your local library for one of the parent familiarization workshops, Cynthia.
  • I'm really impressed by the thought that went into the partnerships with child care centers! It's also neat to see how this effort has progressed since I heard about it in your 2013 Tell Our Story (http://glrhuddle.org/page/gulfport-ms).
    • Thank you for posting the link to Gulfport's 2013 Tell Our Story, Kelly. You're right--it's really great to see how it's expanded over time. It's also a reminder that thoughtful, intentional collaboration takes time.
      • This is really on point: "It's also a reminder that thoughtful, intentional collaboration takes time." Nowadays, boards, governing bodies, and funders demand outcomes so quickly. With the urgency of these problems, and the scarcity of funds, it is understandable. However, we need to work on creating methods to measure interim gains as well as obtaining the understanding of these stakeholders as to the slower pace of change.
        • Your point about measuring interim gains reminded me of the Bright Spot about Quad Cities and the multi-year process of building and improving their summer learning program. Here's the link: http://glrhuddle.org/blog/bright-spots-getting-summer-learning-righ...

          As Alex said: "One lesson here is that one test run is not enough. If we had made our decision based solely on outcomes for years one and two, we wouldn’t have funded year three.”
        • I agree Jean! That's a must-do but challenging.
  • This is a wonderful story of community leadership across public and private partners. Children in Gulfport are lucky to have committed adults solving problems with and without government support. Leadership matters and I hope telling your story will encourage other investments.
  • Betsy, Thank you for your dedication in producing this article about PreK4Ward! We are sharing it with our stakeholders and leaders along the Coast. In fact, this morning a copy went in the hands of our Leadership Gulf Coast group to whom I spoke. One commented that it was so wonderful to finally get positive recognition for Mississippi! We love GLR and appreciate you!
    Sincerely, Cindy Minton Walker
    • Great news. And glad to help spread the word, Cynthia. Obviously couldn't have done it without your considerable help and time! Keep up the great work!
      Betsy
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