January 15, 2014 10:02:57 AM
A pair of Mississippi State University researchers shared data from Mississippi Kids Count during Tuesday's meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club at Lion Hills Golf Club.
Mississippi Kids Count is a part of a national organization funded through grants that focuses on children's health, education, economic well-being and family/community.
Linda Southward and Colleen McKee of MSU's Social Science Research Center spoke to the club about how teenage pregnancy, poverty and proper education can affect the state's economy.
"Until we do something about teen pregnancy and teen birth -- until we do something about poverty in Mississippi -- all of the other things, economic development, education, health, are not going to be where we need for them to be," Southward said.
"When we think about Mississippi and one-in-three kids are living in poverty, which obviously leads the country, we have some real concerns."
The toll of poverty puts many children at an educational disadvantage long before they arrive in kindergarten, Southward said.
Last year, Southward and other social scientists conducted a survey of Mississippi kindergarten teachers. Teachers were asked if they felt children were academically prepared for kindergarten. Forty-one percent of teachers polled said they had at least one child per class who was not prepared for kindergarten, Southward said.
"If that's where we're starting out as a baseline we clearly need to take a look at some of the earlier education," Southward said
To combat the statistic, Southward said Mississippians have to work on creating a nurturing, stimulating classroom environment for the children before they enter the school system while simultaneously educating their parents.
"The basic thing that I understand with children is to teach them where they are, to teach them as they come in, to make sure that it is a stimulating enough environment, even with children who are infants, that bonding, that communication back and forth because of what we've known over the last 15, 20 years now," she said.
"If we don't get to these children and their moms, particularly these teen moms, early, to teach parents how to parent, I think that 41 percent is still going to be there."
In an effort to curb the number of teenage mothers, teaching Abstinence Plus in the classrooms can educate teenagers on practicing safe sex, McKee said.
In 2011, the Mississippi Legislature passed House Bill 999 which gives school districts the option of teaching Abstinence Only or Abstinence Plus. The Columbus Municipal School District and Starkville School System teach Abstinence Plus. Oktibbeha County teaches Abstinence Only for lower grades and Abstinence Plus for older students. Lowndes, Clay and Noxubee counties teach Abstinence Only.
Even among those districts that teach Abstinence Plus, there is not standardized curriculum, McKee said
"Because it's so new it has not really been standardized yet," she said. "They have nine options, some are better than others. We would like to look into that and maybe see it standardized."
Southward said it all comes down to educating and nurturing children from an early age.
"From a scientific vantage point, you can't start early enough nurturing children," she said. "No matter if it's the dad or the mom, the grandmom, the granddad, whoever. We know that that bonding and that warmth and that nourishment is so important. There had been a debate a long time ago on whether it's nature or nurture. You know, whether it's environment or genetic. That argument is way over. It is both."
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @FowlerSarah
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