CANTON, Miss. When school begins next month in Mississippi, Akeeleon Lewis will head to kindergarten for the second time. He started school last fall not knowing his colors or numbers.
"He couldn't even hold a pencil," says Judy Packer, his kindergarten teacher at McNeal Elementary School in Canton, a city of 13,000 about 30 miles northeast of the state capital in Jackson.
Akeeleon was one of about 10 percent of kindergarteners kept back at McNeal when the school year ended in May, a rate twice the national average. Before he arrived at McNeal, he hadn't played much with children his age or ever set foot in a classroom.
Thirty years after Mississippi established statewide kindergarten and made school attendance compulsory starting in first grade, classroom readiness remains a major obstacle to student success in this state, which has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the country and test scores that are consistently among the nation's worst.
Although neighboring states have made great strides in early education, Mississippi remains the only state in the South and just one of 11 in the country that doesn't fund any pre-k programs. Researchers have found that high-quality pre-k programs can improve long-term outcomes for low-income children and help close an achievement gap for minorities that tends to worsen over time. Being able to stand in line, listen to directions or make eye contact with the teacher play in an important role when it comes time to try to teach kids how to read and write. And a lack of school readiness is evident the minute children walk in on the first day of kindergarten, says Kaye Sowell, who has taught for 30 years in Rankin County. "I've had to chase children into the street," she says. "I have kids who don't know their given name and can't recognize it in print. They can't go through the lunch line without holding it up. You can't fathom it unless you've lived it."
Failure to prepare children for kindergarten or first grade costs the state a lot of money. One of every 14 kindergarteners and one of every 15 first-graders in Mississippi repeated the school year in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available. From 1999 to 2008, the state spent $383 million on children who had to repeat kindergarten or first grade, according to the Southern Education Foundation. Children like Akeeleon start so far behind they may never catch up, and those who repeat one or more grades are much more likely than their classmates to drop out of school, decades of research have shown.
The state's academic results abysmal by just about any measurement don't improve as the children grow older. In 2011, the state's fourth-graders were outperformed on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress by their peers in 44 states. In math, they finished second to last in the nation, ahead only of fourth-graders in the District of Columbia.
Just 61 percent of Mississippi's students graduate from high school on time more than 10 percentage points below the national average. Mississippi found itself at the bottom again this week, ranking 50th on six of the 10 national indicators of child well-being in a report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Over the years, countless committees, taskforces and politicians in the state have argued that investing in pre-k will improve high-school graduation rates and build a more highly educated workforce in Mississippi. Retired military leaders added their voices in May, calling for state-funded pre-k to help prepare the more than 75 percent of young Mississippi residents who are ineligible to join the military because, among other reasons, they failed to graduate from high school on time.
But legislators have held firm in the belief that the economically depressed state cannot afford pre-k. Nationally over the past decade, enrollment in pre-k programs has soared even as state funding has declined by more than $700 per child, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
In Mississippi, those who argue against state-funded pre-k say there's no evidence it would change the state's dismal education performance. "Appropriating more money in general has not proven to make any change at all in outcomes," says Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a right-leaning independent think tank based in Jackson. Thigpen says it's up to churches and families to do more to get children ready for school; he would rather see state money spent on improving the current system.
When Pre-K Isn't the Norm
Nationally, about three-quarters of 4-year-olds attend some type of public or private pre-k program. But experts estimate that fewer than half of Mississippi's 4-year-olds are in pre-k, most of whom attend federally funded Head Start programs, which target low-income families.
"Kids who haven't been to school don't interact or participate," says McNeal kindergarten teacher Cartessia Angrum. "They get scared a lot, and have no concept of the difference between letters and numbers."
High-quality programs do exist like the one in Walton Elementary School in Jackson, which uses federal Title I money to serve about 40 pre-k students a year. Principal Gwendolyn Gardner sees children coming to kindergarten from those classrooms eager to build on what they've been learning. "We have some pre-k students who are reading, writing stories, on the computer, doing math, and counting to 100," Gardner says. "Kindergarten can be a real catch-up game for those without the readiness skills."
But getting parents to demand access to high-quality preschools has proven to be a challenge in Mississippi. Parents or grandparents who didn't attend themselves may not see the value. In Canton, where school begins the second week of August, each year scores of students from kindergarten through 12th grade fail to show up until after Labor Day.
Canton Public Schools superintendent, Dwight Luckett Sr., says he wants to see "an all-out campaign" in underprivileged communities to get students into any type of pre-k classroom. And he would like more outreach to these programs and teachers about what children will be expected to know when they arrive.
But the state's fragmented network of early childhood providers which includes informal daycare, licensed facilities, church-based programs and Head Start do not always communicate with the public school system. Many of the programs have no uniform quality standards. In addition, to teach pre-k in Mississippi, teachers need only be 18 and possess a high school diploma or its equivalent.
In Canton, challenges are compounded by poverty. The median annual income for families at McNeal is just under $28,000 the national median is nearly double that amount and more than 96 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Michael Ellis, McNeal's principal, says learning to read can be agonizing for children with little exposure to books. In one kindergarten class last spring, children carefully sounded out letters and memorized frequently used words. They moved to a new "learning station" whenever a buzzer sounded. Each wall had a behavior chart, and students seemed acutely aware of the need to remain orderly. Before eating pizza at an end-of-the year celebration, they folded their hands and prayed silently.
Teachers in Canton use checklists, observational reports and informal tests to track student progress, and they can set their own criteria for holding children back. More students have been struggling since 2010 when the state adopted the new Common Core standards for English and math, which provide parents and teachers with clear expectations of what must be learned in each grade, says Luckett, the superintendent. "Kindergarten is a lot more rigorous now," he says. "There are homework packets and a lot more emphasis on what they [students] should know and be able to do."
Potentially Cost-Effective Solutions
Advocates are pushing hard for better early learning in Mississippi, devising potentially cost-effective solutions. They have distributed studies that underscore the long-term economic benefits of pre-k, and pointed to research by Nobel laureate James Heckman calling pre-k the best investment for developing job skills later on. And they've tried to collaborate with influential business leaders, including former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, who in 2000 gave the state $100 million to create the Barksdale Reading Institute and who is working to improve early literacy.
The issue remains tricky for the public, though. A 2010 survey by The Center for Education Innovation found that while 71 percent of Mississippi's registered voters wanted to improve early learning opportunities, only 31 percent thought the state government should foot the bill.
Carol Burnett, founder and executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, says the state faces an even larger obstacle: overcoming long-held attitudes about race. One out of every two black children in Mississippi lives in poverty, compared with 16 percent of white children, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. Burnett says too many people in power don't want to support public programs "to benefit people whose outcomes they don't care about."
Investing in early education, however, can help everyone in the state by reducing dropout rates and teen pregnancy, says Danny Spreitler, head of the Gilmore Foundation, which has found some promising results by paying for supplies, teachers and classrooms in three counties.
"What really needs to happen is the state needs to decide what's the vision for the future," Spreitler says.
Dick Molpus, a former Mississippi secretary of state who helped guide the 1982 education reform that required the state's public schools to offer kindergarten, agrees. "Not having pre-kindergarten puts our children at a competitive disadvantage," says Molphus, who co-founded the nonprofit advocacy group Parents for Public Schools in 1989. "The next big push in Mississippi needs to be ensuring that every child is ready to begin school."
Jackie Mader contributed to this story, which was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.