MS schools compete for grant in first state-funded pre-k program

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - There is good news for parents wanting to enroll their children in a free preschool program. For the first time in Mississippi history, a state-funded pre-kindergarten program is available. The pre-k programs in place now are funded through federal dollars, private contributions, or through local school districts. Earlier this year, the state legislature approved $3 million to fund voluntary pre-k programs.

The state Department of Education has received letters from than 70 communities that are interested in getting a share of that money. One of them is Biloxi.

More than 100 infants and toddlers are enrolled in the Early Head Start Program at Moore Community House in Biloxi. About 140 youngsters are on the waiting list. Demand is also high for the Head Start program in Harrison County.

"Head Start has like 150 children on a waiting list and we're not even talking about the parents that can't afford the childcare center rates and we want every child to be prepared," said Dr. Janice Wilson, Biloxi Schools Assistant Superintendent.

So the Biloxi School District is teaming-up with Head Start, Moore Community House, and Excel by 5 to apply for a new state grant. The group is seeking $86,000 to open two classes just for four-year olds. The program would be housed in one of the Biloxi school buildings.

"When children come into kindergarten classrooms, some are very well prepared and some haven't had any preparation. The gap between those two is very wide and we need to reach more four-year-old children so they'll all come in on a level playing field," said Carol Burnett, Moore Community House Director.

Biloxi is one of 72 "Early Learning Collaboratives," made up of school districts and their community partners, that have expressed an interest in applying for the $3 million matching grant. If Biloxi receives the funding it needs, pre-k classes could start February first. Some of the funds would be used to provide training for all childcare centers and providers in the Biloxi area.

"We're not in competition with anyone. We just want to ensure that we're able to get every child that we possibly can in a school readiness classroom," said Wilson. "The earlier you can reach a child, the earlier you can instill school readiness for them. So if you can get them at three or four year old, and we can ensure that there's an adequate, quality curriculum being used, they will definitely be ready for kindergarten."

"We're delighted that the state of Mississippi is finally including a pre-k program. It is so important that children begin with early childhood education as early as possible," said Burnett.

The deadline for proposals is November 5th. The funds are expected to be awarded in January. Other south Mississippi school districts, including Long Beach, Pascagoula, Picayune and Jackson County, are also planning to apply.

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