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Fighting for Mississippi’s struggling 5-year-olds, one student at a time

April 2, 2019
Bracey Harris
The Hechinger Report

VAUGHAN, Miss. — When Antroine Anderson started kindergarten in this close-knit rural town last August, he knew just three words by sight. He mistook H for G, confused L and I and identified M as F.

Accustomed to being called AJ by his family, Antroine didn’t recognize his name in print. His mother, Janice Barton, felt ashamed when she learned some of his peers were already writing their names — until she learned many others weren’t prepared for kindergarten either.

In Antroine’s school district, one out of every 10 students had to repeat kindergarten last year. Kindergarteners here scored an average of 461 on the state’s readiness exam in fall 2018, some 69 points below where Mississippi wants them to be.

“Education is the way out, and that starts with reading,” said Tom Taylor, the recently retired deputy superintendent for Yazoo County Schools, who, after 20 years as an educator, is all too aware of the problem. “If you can’t read, you can’t do anything else.”

Poverty, underfunding and longtime segregation patterns only partially explain why many of Mississippi’s children lag behind. Yet data compiled by the Mississippi Department of Education reveal a potential solution: Children who attend pre-K programs are more likely to start school with critical early literacy skills than those who do not, an idea that jibes with a growing body of research showing the benefits of high quality pre-K — especially for children in poverty.

Yet Mississippi, which has the third highest rate of childhood poverty in the U.S., has limited free opportunities for early education. Until recently, Mississippi remained the only state in the South without publicly funded pre-K; the programs that are offered reach only a fraction of the state’s preschoolers. Last year, the state’s fledgling pre-K program served just 3 percent of eligible 4-year-olds, according to a report released by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Access to public pre-K in Mississippi is severely limited; apart from federally funded Head Start programs, there are few options for most children. Less than one in five of Mississippi’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in free state and district-funded programs.