In 2010, the state of Mississippi had a long running history of placing last in most of the indicators that prove a community is thriving and moving toward prosperity. Year after year, the state’s academic data showed that students were scoring 50th or 49th in academic achievement, that 30% of our children were dropping out of school, and that more children were having children in Mississippi than in any other state in the U.S. About one-fourth of our children seemed doomed to becoming a high school drop-out, teen parent, or a state prisoner if something did not change in our educational programs and community support systems.
Against that backdrop a small group of concerned but loosely affiliated individuals came together to prepare a CSAP for the All American Awards to get us focused on solutions. Initially the group began to delve into the data and emerged with the focus on just Gulfport, and on one issue, school readiness. But as their study continued and conversations in the community about the topic began to occur, that focus expanded.
At about that same time, the Mayor of Gulfport, George Schloegel, gathered a small group of people who were interested in improving school readiness and academic performance in the Gulfport School District. The group, the Mayor, School District Superintendent, two representatives of local businesses and two nonprofit representatives with extensive experience in early education, began working quietly behind the scenes looking at the learning gaps and opportunities for educational improvement. With time, the group began to see how improving the educational support systems in the area could affect even the future economic picture of South Mississippi. That realization motivated them to continue these meetings which eventually became the impetus for the One Coast Collaborative, a school readiness and grade level reading coalition.
As the group at the Mayor’s office shared their conversations with others, the areas of education and economic development became linked. In 2010 the Gulf Coast Business Council Masters Class also began a yearlong study of the impacts of education on economics in the region and proposed that improved quality early childhood education was a crucial component of elevating the growth capacity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This solution was presented in a proposal encouraging Gulf Coast business leaders to support the workforce of tomorrow early by establishing an early childhood program in each of the three Coastal counties to build learning skills for at-risk four year old children. A full endorsement by the Gulf Coast Business Council Executive Board was given for this project to proceed and a search for funding sources began.
The question of the state providing funding for four-year-olds had already been asked with a resounding response of “No!” So the group that became the collaborative, joined the business community in an effort to seek private funds that could be used to establish four-year old preschool classes that would be free to selected students.
In 2010, private funds were committed for a pilot program in the Gulfport School District for 20 four-year-old children in a program now called the South MS PreK4Ward Initiative. That fall PreK4Ward was opened by a former educator acting as the project director as the first free, public pre-school class; it enrolled twenty students in the class that was led by a gifted, certified teacher and co-teacher. The students in that first class showed outstanding results: their fall assessments showed 90% were failing to meet standards; those same students ended the year with 90% meeting the standards!
The results every year since 2010 have shown virtually the same strong growth; and the feedback from parents whose children have attended proves that this early education opportunity changed their academic futures!
Unfortunately, with all of the public schools on the Coast reporting that 60% or more of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch, one class could not serve all the children in need of an early learning opportunity. The task then became how to expand the number of early learning classes.
So it was exciting when, in early 2012, our United Way of South Mississippi began to get involved in the same question. Almost as if to answer the question of how would one begin to turn the future around for our children, UWSM released a community assessment that highlighted the shortcomings in the educational achievement of students and the need to increase school readiness. The findings of the study and the recommendation to increase access to early learning programs were presented to every civic club, the Gulf Coast Business Council and nonprofit meeting. United Way changed its investment strategy to focus on school readiness and third grade level reading and formed an Education Vision Council.
The success that has been achieved excited others across Harrison and Hancock Counties and brought additional institutions and resources together to replicate the program in more school districts. Soon grants were being received and corporations began to make significant financial contributions to expand the program.
PreK4Ward staff worked to educate and inform the community about the benefits of offering preschool using presentations to civic and legislative groups, creating commercials, and launching a letter writing campaign to legislators and the governor that sent out 1,000 letters asking them to fund preschools for MS. The bill was passed in 2012 and competitive grants for collaborative pilot programs around the state are being submitted to the State Department of Education now.
How has the One Coast Collaborative evolved?
Recognition of the importance of early learning has been evolving in Mississippi as evidenced by another program called Excel by 5 which has gained momentum across the state. Excel By 5 is a community-based certification process designed to improve a child's overall well-being by age five. This program emphasizes the important roles community members, and especially parents, play in educating their children during their most formative years--birth to five.
Initially funded in 2004 with a $650,000 grant from Chevron, Excel By 5 is currently working with twenty-nine communities throughout the state. The program sets forth a variety of standards involving parent training, community participation, child care and health to help communities focus on supporting young children and their families. The certification process also identifies available resources and existing best practices to help Excel By 5 Early Childhood Communities reach the goal that all children will be ready to learn when they start school at age five.
These threads – Excel by 5, PreK4Ward and United Way – have woven together to increase community awareness of the importance of early learning. The leadership of the PreK4Ward Advisory Board has grown to become the One Coast Collaborative and now includes the Superintendents from four school districts (Gulfport, Harrison County, Biloxi, and Long Beach) in addition to business, Head Start and nonprofit leaders. The primary focus of the collaborative continues to be the expansion of the PreK4Ward program to improve school readiness, but there is a great deal of interest now in 3rd grade reading levels and the use of summer learning programs to improve academic success.
What we have learned
1. As the target geography for the One Coast Collaborative has expanded so has the complexity of developing, implementing and evaluating program results. With three counties and eleven school districts in the area it is a challenge to keep everyone focused on the same vision. This area is highly decentralized and the challenge of competing interests requires a lot of negotiating among the partners.
There are a few key organizations and leaders who are involved in the work of school readiness and grade level reading and they serve in multiple roles among the sometimes overlapping efforts:
PreK4Ward-establishes and oversees now 5 preschool classes
The Nourishing Place - ENHANCE tutoring for at risk students in 3rd grade
Excel by 5 Gulfport and Excel by 5 Biloxi-works to educate parents and community
United Way of South Mississippi-offers leadership and financial support
Harrison County Library System-is involved in all programs
Head Start-collaborates with PreK4ward and the school districts
City of Gulfport-includes programs in city events
Former Mayor of Gulfport and leaders from Gulf Coast Business Council
2. The successful drive to implement a free four-year-old preschool program has required the full time attention of the Collaborative to date.
3. The transition to the Common Core and the passage of the “Third Grade Reading Gate” bill which requires children to be able to read on a third grade reading level before being promoted to the fourth grade will require an intensive and focused effort in support of the school systems. It remains to be seen if the leadership of that effort will come from the Collaborative or if another group will step into that role.
4. Many of the school readiness programs utilize United Way funds for match and United Way had to focus its funding in the arena of early education, shifting investments away from Income and Health issues.
5. The program development, curriculum, hiring and fundraising for the PreK4Ward program has primarily been the work of one volunteer and a small advisory group. Further growth will require paid staff.