OCEAN SPRINGS (WLOX) - They get to play with the coolest toys and let their imaginations run wild. To the three and four-year olds playing in the new Toy Library in Pascagoula, it was all fun and games. But they were actually learning.
"We studied about that one, haven't we? Yeah, a long neck," said a teacher as she held up a dinosaur in front of a group of boys and girls.
Child experts are urging parents to start teaching their little ones during those critical years from birth to five.
"At three, a child should have a vocabulary of almost 10,000 words, and at three, a child should be able to make some good, long, five-word sentences and understand what's read to them," said Dr. Connie Jo Williams, Director of the Early Beginnings Program in Pascagoula. "And when you tell parents those things, they say, 'Oh my goodness, that's what they should know at 36 months?'"
To give youngsters a jump start on education, last October, Pascagoula became the first along the Mississippi Gulf Coast to become a certified "Excel by 5" community. It's a city-wide campaign, funded by Chevron, to make sure that every parent gets the message -- that their preschooler needs to master certain skills before they set foot in Kindergarten. It doesn't matter if the child is taught at home or in a day care.
"It may be that they say, 'I didn't do it. Our neighbor didn't do it. You're telling me my child has to do it?' When you show those parents what the expectations are at the end of high school, then they start scrambling because they know how critical it is," said Dr. Williams.
Many infants and toddlers in Hancock County will also have an easier transition to Kindergarten, thanks to another unique partnership. Chevron and the Save the Children organization donated $1.5 million to build the new Early Education Center in Waveland. The Bay-Waveland School District is using its own money to staff and operate it.
"We all know the research says the earlier a child experiences language and music, and art and song, that they're able to succeed in school," said the principal Donna Torres.
And Torres says in those early years, teachers can catch speech, hearing, and eyesight problems before they become an obstacle to learning.
"It's just going to pay off in the long run," said Torres. "It's not an automatic payoff, but you'll realize that when the child gets to second and third grade and is really getting to the deep reading, those early foundations that were provided through a preschool education made that difference."
And what a difference a few months make for some tiny tots in Ocean Springs. When the preschool program started in August, their fresh faces were so frightened. But now, they can spell, sing the alphabet, and surprise adults with their new skills.
"Is A a vowel or a consonant?" a teacher asked a group of kids.
"Vowel!" they responded.
"Children at this age literally absorb and learn so much so rapidly," said lead preschool teacher Pam Bates. "So if we get them excited and interested in what they're doing and continue that and instill that desire in them, then it will curb that dropout rate."
For now, the program at Oak Park Elementary is only open to low income families and children with special needs. However, in a few years, the district hopes to expand the program district wide, opening it up to every preschooler in the Ocean Springs School District.
While educators are singing the praises of an early childhood education, you don't have to convince Brittany Moore of Pascagoula. Since her three-year-old son Tyler enrolled in a pre-K program, she has noticed quite a change in him -- academically and socially.
"He didn't know how to act around other kids, like share toys, things as such. He liked to fight a lot. But now we're teaching him at the daycare to share, be courteous to your friends and maybe that will be a life-long lesson for him," said Brittany Moore.
Early childhood education is also getting a lot of attention in other south Mississippi cities. For instance, the Moss Point and Biloxi School Districts are leading the effort to turn their cities into certified "Excel by 5" communities. And the Pass Christian School District will open its brand, new preschool in July.