Janette Kirk sits at the back of Abigail Wallace’s kindergarten classroom at Parkway Elementary, taking notes as the children practice counting syllables in common words. “Clap it… stomp it… jump it,” Wallace instructs, and the children follow along.
Kirk, director of Kiddie Kastle Preschool in Tupelo, is part of a new initiative, coordinated by Lee County Excel By 5, where daycare teachers can observe kindergarten classrooms in the Tupelo and Lee County public schools. These observations give daycare staff a firsthand look at what students will be doing in kindergarten in order to better prepare their students for school.
“It meant a lot to me to go into the kindergarten classes at Parkway Elementary and Carver Elementary to sit in and observe the classes. To see the teacher give instructions to the children and see the children go work independently in their different centers was amazing to me, only two months into the school year,” Kirk said. “Something as simple as hearing the language the teacher uses with the students, this will help me at my daycare to better prepare the children before they go into school.”
Currently 60% of children arrive at kindergarten lacking foundational and readiness skills.
This initiative plans to reduce that number by helping childcare centers better prepare their children.
In addition to these observation opportunities, Excel By 5 has worked with both school districts to allow daycares to use the public schools’ computer labs so the children can practice using desktop computers.
“At the beginning of the year, each child takes a kindergarten readiness test called MKAS2,” shared Shelly Brooks, certification manager for Lee County Excel By 5. “The test assesses knowledge and skills in early literacy and early numeracy. These assessments are important because they provide parents, teachers and early childhood providers with an understanding of what children know and are able to do when entering kindergarten. Data is also used to help improve the quality of classroom instruction and determine interventions and services that may be needed.”
Brooks recently retired as the principal of Shannon Primary School. With 25 years of experience in elementary education, Brooks knows personally what challenges teachers and students face in kindergarten. An issue Brooks noted is that a lack of familiarity with the computer equipment resulted in even lower MKAS2 scores for some students.
“Many children do not know what to do with a mouse,” Brooks explained. “They know how to use iPads and smartphones, but most schools do not have enough iPads for every child to test that way. It’s important that the children know how to use the desktop computer and how to manipulate the mouse.”
The target score on the MKAS2 test is 530. In fall 2016, the state average score was 502.
Children who attended either public or private Pre-K programs scored the highest, with averages of 537.4 and 541.7, respectively. Children attending licensed childcare centers averaged 513.2, while those at Head Start averaged 475 and those who stayed home averaged 473.9.
Mississippi does not provide funding for public Pre-K programs so most children are either in childcare centers, family daycare or at home during their preschool years. Brooks’ goal is to ensure kindergarten readiness for all children in Lee County, regardless of where they spend their four-year-old year.
Lee County is home to approximately 55 licensed childcare centers, which makes working with all of them a challenge, but one that Brooks is ready to take on. So far, she has worked with about nine centers: Kid’s Landing, Step by Step, Kiddie Kastle, All God’s Children, Precious Hands, Genesis, Faye’s Playhouse, Noah’s Ark and Happy Feet. Eventually Brooks hopes to form strong relationships with all the centers in Lee County and help them to work together and with the schools.
In addition to the classroom observations and computer lab use, Excel By 5 has hosted meetings between kindergarten teachers and daycare staff. Brooks has also helped schedule professional development and training days for daycare teachers on weekends.
Other successes Brooks notes include that Tupelo Public School District’s Early Childhood Education Center has invited daycare centers to join in their Arts Integration Fridays where the children can participate in activities like dance, yoga and art classes. ECEC has also formed a new partnership with the Head Start Center to share professional development and family night activities between the schools.
“Everyone is excited about these new relationships. The schools have been so welcoming to the daycare centers and Head Start. These partnerships are such a need and something so easy to do to improve readiness for the children,” Brooks said.
Ultimately, research indicates that many of the issues related to school readiness stem from household income. Studies show that the more a small child is exposed to language, the quicker he or she will start to understand speech and eventually read. In low-income households, four-year-olds on average have vocabularies of only 13 million words, compared to 45 million words for children in professional families. Low-income children recognize only nine letters by age five, compared to 22 letters for their middle-income peers. 61% of low-income children have no children’s books in their homes.
In Lee County, 30% of children live in poverty.
To help address access to children’s books in order to promote vocabulary growth and early literacy, Excel By 5 has partnered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to provide free books, mailed once per month to the child’s home, for Lee County children ages birth to five. Currently 1,000 children are enrolled in the program, but another 170 are on a waiting list.
“We are trying to raise the money to add at least 400 more children to the list,” Brooks said.
In addition to her role with Excel By 5, Brooks also works with the newly formed READ First coalition, a partnership between United Way of Northeast Mississippi and the CREATE Foundation, which seeks to improve grade-level reading in Lee County through collaboration between school districts, daycare centers, business leaders and nonprofit organizations.
“Research tells us that when children are not reading on grade level by the third grade, they are four times more likely not to get a diploma and 3.5 times more likely to be incarcerated,” Brooks stated.
The READ First Coalition has identified three focus areas related to grade-level reading: chronic absenteeism, summer learning loss and kindergarten readiness.
“The partnership between schools and daycares is so instrumental because kindergarten readiness is such a big factor in grade-level reading and overall educational success,” Brooks explained.
Brooks added that her main role has simply been to facilitate conversations between all the involved parties. “I’m constantly doing little things like sharing information about family events, so the daycares can share that information with their parents. Little things like that, which weren’t being done but are so easy and do not cost any money. Just conversations and partnerships.”
Janette Kirk expressed her gratitude for these new partnerships that will allow her to better train her staff to educate their students. “We’re going to do some trainings and workshops. I took about 14 pages of notes, and we’re going to take that information and do some training so we can continue to prepare our children academically so they can be successful in school.”
Brooks added that her main focus is “developing relationships and communication. We have so many resources available in the county, but we need to bring them together in one place so we can share that knowledge.”
You can sponsor a child for Imagination Library for only $25 per year.