SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - It still surprises many people to learn that kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in Mississippi. On Monday, a state lawmaker from Gulfport announced her latest attempt to require all five-year-olds in the state to be in class. Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes is very passionate about this campaign.
With a bunch of preschoolers and kindergartners standing behind her in the Gulfport School District conference room, Representative Sonya Williams-Barnes announced that she wants to change the compulsory school age in Mississippi from six to five.
"In order for us to ensure that our children are reading by third grade, we must make sure that they're in the classroom at age five in kindergarten," said Williams-Barnes.
Her bill is called the KIDs Act, which stands for "Kindergarten Increases Diplomas". This is her fourth time trying to get the mandatory kindergarten bill passed.
"It is important to our children. It is important to our workforce. It is important to our economic development. If we have a good educational foundation for our workforce, you have job opportunities for people. You have businesses that want to come in," said Williams-Barnes.
The bill also honors her mother, the late Rose Mary Hayes Williams, who was one of the first public school kindergarten teachers in Mississippi. Sonya Ashley was part of that 1976 pilot class at Pass Christian Elementary School.
"They were inspiring. They were loving. They were nurturing, and not only that, they challenged us. They really made us feel like we could do anything," said Ashley.
Supporters said children who get an early education can build social skills, adjust to a structured environment, and prepare for a lifetime of learning.
"Educators know that kindergarten is a key, a bridge year for children," said Mississippi Association of Educators President Joyce Helmick. "Study after study shows that those who get a high quality education are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to get in trouble, and more likely to have a good job."
Even the little ones understand why they need to be in school.
"If you do good stuff, you're going to go to kindergarten," said five-year-old Jayden White, who is getting ready to start kindergarten next month.
"They're our future, and if we don't do things to ensure that they have a successful, positive and productive future, then why are we here?" asked Williams-Barnes.
She can't explain why some families don't take advantage of a kindergarten education.
"There should be no barriers, and if there are barriers, and the barriers are at the home, we need to push through those barriers to make sure those kids are in school reading and learning," said Williams-Barnes.
The mandatory kindergarten bill is now before the House Education Committee. The MAE is urging people to contact their state lawmakers to support the measure.