GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Four-year-olds in Gulfport's free preschool program are learning their numbers, ABC's, months of the year, and days of the week. The one-of-a-kind program started three years ago at Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, and now meets at Central Elementary. Project Director Cynthia Minton Walker hopes to one day see it expand to other elementary schools across the coast.
"If we don't educate them early, the research is very clear, we will lose them by seven or eight years of age."
Walker shared that statistic Monday with members of the Gulf Coast Business Council, who came to see what the south Mississippi PreK4Ward Initiative was all about. The highlight of the trip was stepping inside the classroom with some very enthusiastic four-year-olds already enrolled in the free program.
"The children were just phenomenal," Kathleen Shaughnessy said. "It's just fantastic to see the children and their involvement and just everything they've already learned."
Shaughnessy serves on the Education committee of the Gulf Coast Business Council. As a business leader, she knows early education is directly linked to our future.
"Education, education, education is where we need to start for our workforce and for these children and for someone to come and take my job when I'm not here, after I retire."
Stephanie Barnes Taylor also serves on the Gulf Coast Business Council, and agrees the free pre-K is a huge asset for South Mississippi.
"All of our children deserve to have these very basic things that will enable them to succeed once they get into elementary school and beyond," said Taylor.
Now thanks to an anonymous donor, the PreK4Ward Initiative is brining the free class to the Bay-Waveland School District next year. And with the community's support, Jackson County will be next.
"It's time for all of us to say, 'Do we care about our kids?'" explained Taylor. "Put our money where our mouth is and let's begin to support these until the state is ready to take them over."
The new, free pre-K class in Hancock county will meet at the Chevron Early Childhood Development Center behind Waveland Elementary. It's all first come/first served, but there's no word yet on when enrollment begins.
If you'd like to learn more about the South Mississippi PreK4Ward Initiative, you can call (228) 224-5715.