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Image: Monroe County pre-kindergarten center
Kim Palmer
A child in a Monroe County pre-kindergarten center uses one of the many educational games and toys provided by the Gilmore Foundation.
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updated 10/4/2012 11:07:04 AM ET 2012-10-04T15:07:04

The Hechinger Report is taking an extended look at why the children of Mississippi start behind and stay behind academically, often ranking at or near the bottom nationally in scholastic achievement. Mississippi is also the only state in the south and one of only 11 in the U.S. without state-funded pre-K. Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation ,has partnered with existing child-care centers to create 14 well-equipped pre-school programs in Northern Mississippi that are providing pre-kindergarten seats to every child in Monroe County. The cost of the public-private partnership averages $70 a week, but the program offers scholarships for any child who needs one. He also insists that fathers be involved. The Hechinger Report spoke with Spreitler after visiting his centers recently.

Q: What has made the Monroe County program so effective at providing every child with a pre-K education?   

A: I think the thing that has made it so effective is that the program doesn’t fit in the normal domains of a high-quality early childhood education. If you look at how you define a high-quality education program, this is different. If there is collaboration with public schools, private institutions and Head Start, we create a community where a child can succeed. What we’ve done is taken a community, the entire county, and focused 100 percent of energy on improving the lives of children. We’ve tried to get everybody out of the child-care business and into the education arena with these young children.

Story: Q&A: What will it take to improve school readiness in Mississippi?
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Q: How do your centers differ from other Head Start or pre-K centers in the state?

The weakest thing in [early childhood learning] in Mississippi, and the one thing no one is discussing, is the curriculum. The [state] curriculum [for early childhood] has two domains, math and language arts. What about social studies and science and social and emotional development and art creativity and reasoning?

Slideshow: Inside Monroe County pre-kindergarten classrooms

Q: How can the rest of Mississippi replicate what you’ve done to provide universal pre-K to children, especially without the financial resources that you have?

Image: Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation
Kim Palmer
Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation, oversees 14 pre-kindergarten centers in northern Mississippi.

A: The ability to provide a high-quality environment to the children requires communities to address the systems. We’ve had to address the weaknesses in mental health programs, the breakdown in the systems for health and well being, we’ve had to address family structure. There are too many needs outside of the classroom that aren’t being met. You’ve got to address those systems first. If you can’t address those things, no program, in my opinion, is going to be successful. Too many children in Mississippi miss the assessments: well-being assessments, dental assessment, eye exams, whatever it may be. They miss all of these things and then their lives are negatively impacted. Communities need to ensure that every child-care provider is aligned with the needs of the public schools. If there’s not that communication between the public school and child-care provider, child-care providers cannot have children ready for the school. Bring the community together around the child. Bring the churches, the private centers, the Head Starts, and the public schools.

'Digital toolkit': Early education leaves daycare in its dust

Q: What does the state need to do to create a universal pre-K program and are they capable of it now?

A: At this time, we do not have the option of universal pre-K. I am very concerned that the pressure that’s being put on the state from various sources will force us into a knee-jerk reaction to have a program just to say we have it. Universal pre-K in Mississippi would have to adopt a model of collaboration [between] public schools and private providers. We must develop a curriculum that will allow those that want to focus on pre-K to be successful. [Other learning guidelines] have to be developed by the Mississippi Department of Education. Then, we need to focus on quality. We need to be focusing on training these teachers in child-care centers and in pre-K how to teach. We’re getting the cart before the horse. We have to get these systems fixed before we can do anything else with these children. They deserve that from us. 

This interview, "Q&A with Danny Spreitler: What will it take to improve school readiness in Mississippi?," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Copyright © 2013 The Hechinger Report

Video: Early childhood neglect has negative impact on kids

  1. Closed captioning of: Early childhood neglect has negative impact on kids

    >>> back now at 8:51 with an eye opening look at the importance of quality day care center from millions of infants in the u.s. jenna bush hager is here with details. good to see you.

    >> hi, ann. during the first two years of life the brain is at its most vulnerable. in some day care centers where kids aren't learning they fall way behind. that window can be a predictor for the rest of a child's life. life for high school seniors is almost always busy, juggling early mornings and school work .

    >> want to help mom?

    >> reporter: for 18-year-olds it has complexities. here she's raising two young boys who are under the age of 3 and only ten months apart.

    >> it's hard. it's hard because at times i'm a mother and father to my kids.

    >> reporter: although glamorized on tv and in celebrity magazines, in reality --

    >> color right there.

    >> reporter: young teenaged moms have a lot to worry about. like dismal day care .

    >> they usually sat down and it's like one teacher with 20 students. and if they didn't want to do nothing they will just make them watch tv.

    >> reporter: wendy 's kids are not alone. approximately 7 million toddlers in the u.s. get care from somebody other than a relative and a recent study found only 8% of infant care centers are of good or excellent quality.

    >> many children spend a lot of time without having anyone talk to them, without being picked up. there are many children spending their days in front of television sets. by the time they are ready for kindergarten they may be two years behind well to do peers.

    >> reporter: the head of the center for early childhood education at harvard has new research that shows how negligent in the first few years of life changes a child's brain forever.

    >> when a child is getting almost no stimulation the brain starts to lose its architecture. you can see some of the connections wither away and you have death of brain cells . the result is a brain that's less well wired for learning and development. this is not about everybody ending up the same. this is about everybody starting at a level playing field .

    >> reporter: a level playing field is all wendy wants for her sons.

    >> they are learning so much, every second.

    >> reporter: it turns out just across town from wendy lives su srs susie sprks bu -- buffett. he chose not to give money to his children but give them billions for philanthropy.

    >> i believe that most of the kids popped out with the ability to learn and succeed but they don't have the opportunity. so they end up going to kindergarten unprepared and everything starts going downhill. if we can change that it will change the k through 12 system and other things in the country.

    >> reporter: susie is putting time and resources behind a new child care system called edu-care. what's different between what you see here and what you see in ineffective child care systems?

    >> it's quality. certified teachers in every classroom. it's low ratio. for the young kids it's 3 to 1. kids walk into kindergarten prepared and on a same level with their peers.

    >> reporter: wendy 's kids are now being cared for here.

    >> they have learned a lot. i look at my son and he's doing everything. he's talking, walking, saying his numbers. he knows what he's doing.

    >> reporter: does it make you feel proud as a mom?

    >> it makes me feel good.

    >> reporter: the boys may have started at a zdisadvantage. now they are ahead of the game. for too many, that creates obstacles that will last a lifetime. we don't want to scare parents or make them worry. appropriate stimulation is everything from reading to playing to simply speaking with your children. it's the simple things that help form the foundation for the rest of their lives.

    >> that's a really good story, jenna.

    >> thank you.

    >> it doesn't just help children and families. it helps our company.

    >> economy. economists talk about how important it is.

    >> well done.

    >> thanks.

    >> just ahead, answers to your most pressing financial emergencies. first,

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