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Ideas On Tap: investing in early childhood education

Early childhood education in the LOU community was a hot topic of conversation at Thursday’s “Ideas On Tap” discussion hosted by the Mississippi Humanities Council.

Audience members, many of whom were educators, professors and parents, filled the dining room of Proud Larry’s, where District 1 Supervisor Kevin Frye moderated a discussion between three experts on education in Mississippi.

Panel members were Dr. Cathy Grace with the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning; Dr. Michael Cormack, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute and Tamara Hillmer, CEO of LOU Reads. Thursday’s event was the third of its kind to be held in Oxford, but Frye said he’d been pondering the discussion topic for nearly a year.

“I started thinking probably a year ago about things that the community should be thinking about and addressing that we’re not necessarily talking about,” Frye said. “We’re an education community, and I feel, personally, that we’re missing some of our youngest citizens in Lafayette County.”

The discussion examined early childhood education from a variety of angles, especially in terms of economic growth and social change at the state and local level. Grace first presented the idea that early childhood education is the foundation for the rest of a person’s life.

Early childhood education, she said, has progressed significantly last 30 years. What began with the mindset that early childhood education was a nurturing profession, a time for children to be loved and hugged, has transcended that simple notion thanks to research on the human brain, Grace said.

“[Early childhood education] actually is laying the foundation for how the brain is wired, how we process, what we process. Not only language skills which come into play, but a very important skill – how early childhood is being positioned into the workforce,” Grace said. “That is the executive function, which is in the front cortex of the brain and acts sort of like an air traffic controller, so that children have working memory, that they are flexible in their ability to switch and change their thoughts and also in terms of their impulse control, all of which are critical skills in the workforce.”

Grace cited a report from Governor Phil Bryant, which states that 33,000 unfilled jobs in Mississippi, primarily mid-level supervisor roles. What researchers are examining now, she said, is the connection between early brain development and the ability to perform well in that kind of role.

Another hot topic of discussion was the achievement gap in Oxford and Lafayette County School Districts. OSD has been recognized as having the highest achievement gap in the state, between students who were socioeconomically disadvantaged and those who weren’t, and between black and white students.

Cormack addressed the issue, explaining that school districts, including Oxford, are heading in the right direction when it comes to funding three-year-old preschool programs. However, these programs are operated in a targeted way, for children with special needs or those who would go on to qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, he said. While these programs operate with good intentions, Cormack said the reality is that all children benefit from this interaction.

“David Kirp has done a number of studies that looked at both socioeconomic and racial integration in these classrooms,” Cormack said. “When it happens at a young age, the achievement gap can really be narrowed at an earlier phase when children have the opportunity to interact with one another.”

In terms of local discussion, Hillmer addressed issues with equity and accessibility of educational materials for children and parents in the LOU community. One statistic Hillmer presented concerned the kindergarten readiness assessment, or MCAS. The ideal score, she said, is 530. Last year, LCSD averaged a score of 515. OSD wasn’t much higher, at 522.

However, in examining the 15 early learning collaboratives in the state, Hillmer said she learned scores in those areas were much higher than LCSD and OSD.

“When you look at the state’s educational collaboratives, which have support and room to enhance their programs, Coahoma County’s score was 533 and Monroe County’s was 558. Corinth’s area scored 559,” Hillmer said. “When I looked at those areas that have extra support, that shows impact to me.”

Hillmer went on to say that LOU Reads Coalition, which coordinates literacy initiatives for both LCSD and OSD, hit the ground running this summer with its new literacy bus. The bus traveled across the county, from the Summer Meals program at Oxford Middle and Intermediate schools to Harmontown and Abbeville. To date, Hillmer said, the LOU Reads team has distributed 1,300 books to approximately 1,000 students, as well as worked with parents to encourage literacy in the home.

For Frye, nothing is as valuable on a personal or community level as education, he said. As the holder of an education degree, as well as an attorney and elected official, Frye said he’s hopeful conversations like the ones at Ideas On Tap will spur change.

“In this community, there’s no doubt about the value of education. We’ve got the university here, a great community college and two of the best school districts in the state, and yet we don’t ever talk about this zero-to-four age group, at least among the politicians,” Frye said. “To get people to understand why this is important and why we should dedicate funding to it, there’s nothing else that I’m aware of that we’re putting money into that returns a 13-to-one investment.”