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Early Learning Collaborative to provide a countywide investment into the present and future of Lafayette County

When Director of Early Childhood Development Tamara Hillmer finalized her application to the Early Learning Collaborative, she was hopeful, but skeptical.

After all, she was just part of a process that applied for 318 more seats pre-K and kindergarten programs across the county.

This began with a submittal in September, and an interview in October. Even though Hillmer felt the interview went well, however, 318 is large number of students to start with.

“I kind of had the feeling from the interview that we probably wouldn’t get all of our spots that we applied for,” she said. “At least if we can get about a hundred. That would get the new classes started.”

The Mississippi Board of Education made its decision on December 21st. The county would get over $2 million in funding for its 318 seats, and Hillmer’s mouth dropped open.

This was the culmination of a process that took half of a year, but will also address the issue of education in pre-K and kindergarten students all over Lafayette County.

“In Oxford, we’re known to have the largest achievement gap between different groups of students.,” Hillmer said. “When students come in into pre-K, or even into kindergarten, and they haven’t had any opportunities, experiences, all those types of things before they even get into kindergarten, they come into the school with an opportunity gap.”

This application, which has the support of the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, will also help parents and children in the county get access to pre-K education.

“Going into all these different centers and schools and daycares, preschools that we have in our community, many of them have a waiting list,” Hillmer said.

Hillmer was previously the director at Willie Price Lab School, and said the school had a waiting list between 50 and 100 children. She was also aware that Bramlett Elementary had a waiting list in the same range as well.

These waiting lists are coupled with the data points from the MKAS, the statewide kindergarten readiness assessment, which Hillmer said encompassed all of the preschools in the community as well as the homeschooled children.

Of all the students she was able to test, only 45 percent made the kindergarten readiness cut with a score of 530.

With this new collaborative, Bramlett, Willie Price, Lafayette Elementary and Mary Cathey Head Start will have 18 pre-K classes for 4-year-old students. To go along with the new classes, Mary Cathey will also be hiring four new teachers and four new assistants.

From the county’s perspective, supporting a program like the ELC, which emphasizes children’s growth while adding more opportunities for teachers in the area, was an easy decision.

“It’s imperative we understand any investment we can make in our children in that age pays a long-term dividend for the community as these kids grow up,” District 1 County Supervisor Kevin Frye said.

Frye, who is the father of 1-year-old and 2-year-old boys, is aware of the deficit of childhood education throughout the county, and said it’s a constant source of anxiety among parents.

However, a collaborative like the ELC is the kind of investment that solves the problem of availability, while also thinking about the future of Lafayette County.

“The reality is, the investment is that an investment in children pre-kindergarten, in these early years as a return that is significant over time,” he said.

“It’s imperative we understand any investment we can make in our children in that age pays a long-term dividend for the community as these kids grow up.”

Hillmer said the funding the state is providing will be available this January, however she said the collaborative will begin the next school year, in August 2019, in order to have a plan for how to use those funds.

“The investment we’re putting in, we’re going to be able to see a big return on that down the road,” Hillmer said, “and have a better impact within our parents that are better educated, within our students that are ready and coming in ready for school and excited.”