January 30, 2014 10:20:14 AM
A recently released Kids Count study shows 4 out of 5 Mississippi school children are not proficient readers by the time they enter the fourth grade.
The data, released by the organization housed at Mississippi State University, shows a slight improvement from a 2003 study -- then, the study showed 82 percent of the state's fourth graders lacked proficient reading skills, compared to the 79 percent mark recorded in the recent data -- but the proficiency gap between low-income and high-income children in the state increased by 8 percent over the same time period.
Eighty-five percent of children living in low-income households are reading at a below-proficient level, a Kids Count release states, compared to 58 percent of those from higher-income households.
"Despite gains over the last decade, 79 percent of our children are entering the fourth grade lacking the reading skills they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond," said Mississippi Kids Count Director Linda Southward in a release. "The pathway to becoming more proficient readers begins long before the fourth grade. The importance of quality early care and education experiences for young children cannot be overstated, particularly among children in low-income households.
"All states need to do whatever it takes to get all kids -- especially in populations that are struggling -- on track with this milestone," she added in the release. "As the nation continues to become more racially diverse, the low reading proficiency scores of children of color are deeply concerning for the nation's long-term prosperity."
Commission on Starkville Consolidated School District Structure say they're hopeful a strong pre-kindergarten partnership between MSU and the upcoming unified school district will not only help improve young children's reading capabilities locally, but also on a statewide basis.
The university will expand its pre-kindergarten program to impact all 4-year-olds in Oktibbeha County, and broaden its statewide mission across the state, "ultimately achieving university availability of quality pre-kindergarten education for all 4-year-olds in Mississippi by 2025," according to the finalized draft of school merger recommendations.
The university will also increase outreach opportunities to families throughout the state and found the MSU Research and Outreach Center on Rural Education. The center will engage research on teacher education in rural areas by focusing on unique issues, teacher recruitment and technological utilization.
Specifically, the program will focus on effective instruction utilizing STEM (science, technology engineering and math) education for low-income, rural and minority students.
Local MSU outreach efforts will support other Oktibbeha County pre-kindergarten programs by helping with accreditation and Early Learning Standards implementation efforts. Other initiatives will also pair family studies students in MSU's human sciences with local residents to help with parenting skills, physical fitness, health and nutrition.
"When kids start behind, it really is so very hard for them to catch up," said commission member Rex Buffington. "All the data now is showing that (early childhood opportunities) make a life-long impact. Even as adults, the kids who have the opportunity to be in quality pre-school programs, they're more successful."
To accomplish its goals, the merger committee is asking state lawmakers to provide up to $8 million for construction and operation of the pre-kindergarten school and $1 million annually for five years to operate it. The university is also seeking up to $9 million to construct a new grades 6-7 campus for Oktibbeha County school children.
"What we see with this new partnership with the city and consolidated school district is the opportunity not only to partner with K-12 efforts, but to also broaden infant and toddler and pre-k efforts for all of Mississippi. We need to set the standard and raise the bar as high as we can for the children in our district and across the state," said David Shaw, MSU vice president for research and economic development. Shaw served as MSU's representative on the local consolidation committee.
"To be able to effectively read at fourth grade, you have to come into kindergarten ready to learn. That's what pre-k is all about: putting the basic building blocks of education in place," he said. "There are educational aspects ranging from ABCs and numbers that are important, but just as important is learning how to be able to function in a learning environment. It's easy to get lost on one aspect, but the holistic approach...helps children hit the ground running better."
Shaw said MSU groups are continuing to study cost estimates for the university's proposed partnerships.
A copy of the consolidation committee's recommendations was slated for delivery to lawmakers Tuesday, but inclement weather led to the governor closing down the Legislature that day. Committee chairman Larry Drawdy confirmed the report would head to lawmakers later in the week but could not confirm a specific date for its delivery.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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