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A High Stakes Race? The Race to the Top Competition May Be Stiff, but What’s at Stake?

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 12 Oct 2011 01:01pm | comments
Race to the Top money would create learning environments in childcare rooms. Public preschools, on the other hand, won't receive money to grow.

Mississippi is a week away from applying for Race to the Top – a federal competition that rewards the most innovative ideas in education.  This round focuses on early education, but committee member have different ideas of what’s best for our state’s youngest learners.  MPB’s Education Reporter, Annie Gilbertson, investigates why pre-k for all Mississippi's students isn't an option this time around.

It may sound strange, but there is a competition for Mississippi's four-year-olds.

Childcare centers, Head Start and Public School Preschool classrooms all want a share of the early learning market.

Jamie Manning is a preschool teacher for the Meridian Public School District.  Preschool in Meridian is unique.  The program still competes with childcare centers and Head Start for enrollment, but they have collaborative agreements with public programs that help put aside differences and pool resources.

Manning: “And we’ve heard from the kindergarten teachers, they can clearly tell the students who have had pre-k and those who haven’t had pre-k, because it really prepares them. They are ready to come in at the beginning of the year and ready to start reading.”

Rachel Canter, Executive Director of Mississippi First, says for these reasons, Meridian's pre-school collaborative delivery model is what policymakers should look to in expanding our early learning system towards a pre-academic focus.  Right now most children go to childcare facilities instead of preschool or Head Start.  Canter says this makes the statewide system heavy on safety and light on skill-building.

Canter:  “If you go into a very low quality childcare center, you’ll see kids in a group on a rug.  And the video might be entertaining, but the purpose of it is to keep kids quiet and safe as opposed to engage them in something that will give them skills.”

What's attracts Canter to Meridian is that they aren't reinventing the wheel.  They use what they have on-hand plus a chunk of Title 1 dollars intended to boost education opportunity for students of low-income families.

Moreover, Canter says the district debunks one of Mississippi's biggest educational myths: that pre-k does not exist in Mississippi.

Canter: In the last ten years, what you’ve seen is that a lot of public schools have started using their Title 1 dollars or some portion of their Title 1 dollars to open to open a public school pre-k.  There are actually a lot of public school district that do this- at least a third of school districts in Mississippi.”

Canter pitched a model similar to Meridian's to the State Early Childhood  Advisory Council, the group in charge of applying for the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge.

Applications are due in a little over a week and Mississippi stands to win $50 million provided they deliver a proposal based in pre-academic development, a qualified workforce and an accountability system.

Despite Canter's attempt, Mississippi's Race to the Top application does not propose to extend or create pre-k for all.

Cathy Grace is Chair of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council - the group charged with producing a winning plan.  She says it’s impossible to request money from Race to the Top for something we don't already have in place.  Basically, Mississippi has to show they'll put money where their mouth is before the federal government will ante up.

Grace: “It’s just like if you were going into a business and the people who wanted the business weren’t willing to invest, would you have a hesitancy to invest yourself?”

Grace says the proposal will still create liaisons to build relationships amongst all the early childhood players.  Instead of creating pre-k classrooms for all kids, the money would improve independent childcare classrooms by providing training for staff and resources for learning materials.  In exchange, these independent childcare facilities would be required to participate in a quality rating system.  High quality centers look a lot like preschools: the director is required to have a bachelor’s degree in Early Ed or related field; the curriculum has to rely on state’s early learning guidelines; there are parent teacher conferences; and staff must do annual professional development.  Childcare centers wouldn’t be required to high quality, only incentivized to do so.

But all these plans hinge on whether or not Mississippi wins Race to the Top.  The race is highly competitive. Unlike Mississippi, 40 other states already sponsor some form of pre-k and are looking to expand. 

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I'm Annie Gilbertson.

 

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Race to the Top money would create learning environments in childcare rooms. Public preschools, on the other hand, won't receive money to grow.


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