Gulfport free, pilot Pre-K program prepares children for school

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - "They are phenomenal, is all I can say."

Malinda Watts is the inspirational teacher helping Gulfport four year olds learn as much as possible.

Throughout the year, 20 students have been learning about shapes, colors, letters of the alphabet, and words, soaking it all up like little sponges.

As Watts likes to put it, "These young people have gone from four year olds to 25 year olds.  They have become very independent. They're very independent learners. They love helping each other. I think they're going to make a tremendous transition into kindergarten next year."

Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel agrees.

"We're making a huge difference in children's lives," says Schloegel.

The mayor was part of the group effort to bring this free pilot program to Gulfport two years ago.  He realizes how important it is to start helping children at a very early age.

"It's even too late to wait until the kindergarten year to start a child learning," says Schloegel. "We've got to get children two, three, and four years old into the school system, so that during the developmental period of life they're able to be prepared for life in general.  If we miss that opportunity, the child never catches up."

"Ninety percent of a child's brain development occurs before the age of three, and we have public school settings that pick children up at age five," explains Cynthia Minton Walker of the Gulfport Pre-K program.

Those who are passionate about early education, also know there's a direct link between quality education and future economic development in south Mississippi.

"The more you put your money into early childhood, the more your yield for a qualified workforce and for highly skilled labor," says Walker.

Perhaps the greatest outcome, though is the experience these children are getting, budding before our very eyes, ready to face the world.

The Gulfport Pre-k program is a pilot program right now because it relies on grant money and private donations. It is free to parents.  The only criteria is that you live in Gulfport and your four-year old's shot records are up to date.

There is a waiting list for next year's class, but if you'd like to be added, just call Lynn Meadows Discovery Center at (228) 897-6039.

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