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 email@example.com.Photos: PreK4Ward; Publication Date: Winter 2015 To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.