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Getting a jump start on learning

By Staff
CHARTING NEW WATERS Beth Phillips, a Little Stars teacher at Oakland Heights Elementary School, reads inside a classroom tugboat with students Damian Showers, left, and Tyler Turnage. Photo by Marianne Todd/The Meridian Star
By Steve Gillespie/The Meridian Star
Dec. 16, 2001
Malyke Edmonds doesn't like to get up in the morning any more than other 4-year-olds, but by the time he gets to school at Oakland Heights Elementary, he's excited about the day.
Malyke, the son of Selena and Jerry Edmonds, is in Belinda Kerley's Little Stars class, where the Meridian Public School District initiated an early childhood education began six years ago.
The same thing is happening in the home of Katricia and Albert Emerson Jr. Their daughter, Mayah Emerson, is one of Malyke's classmates.
For Christmas, Mayah is asking for books, computer software and a telescope.
He wishes he had been as excited about learning when he was very young. He credits his daughter's drive to the contagious enthusiasm of her teacher.
How it began
Early childhood education is funded with federal Title I monies, designated for schools with the largest at-risk populations.
In Meridian, the program has grown from one school in 1995 to four in the current school year. The start-up cost for each class is $68,000 for teacher and assistant salaries and materials. Sylvia Autry, Meridian schools assistant superintendent, said it costs about $50,000 a year to maintain each class.
When the program began in Meridian, there were only a "handful" of school districts in the state doing the same thing, Autry said, so district officials looked states like Alabama for direction.
McLin said brain development research done over the past decade shows children need stimulation for language development, especially from birth to age 3, and that language development is much more difficult when done at a later stage in life.
Early childhood programs were expanded in the 1999-2000 school year at Crestwood and Witherspoon elementary schools. This school year, classes were added at West End Elementary School.
In the process of building an early childhood education program, the school district also made strides to build a transitional bridge with Head Start.
Autry said about 34 percent of children eligible for Head Start in Meridian cannot be served by the program because of class size limits.
Tracking the results
McLin said the differences in children who attended Meridian's first early childhood class make chills go up and down her spine.
Now in the third grade, the district's first Little Stars at Oakland Heights are reading at slightly higher levels than their classmates who attended Head Start or private preschool programs, or who had no formal preschool training.
Autry said students in early childhood programs go on to score higher in reading, language and math; have more referrals to gifted education; and fewer referrals to special education.
The same results are evident at Crestwood and Witherspoon, where the first early childhood education students are now in kindergarten.
Parents want it, too. Autry is constantly asked if children in the other elementary school districts can get into the program.
Steve Gillespie is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3233, or e-mail him at sgillespie@themeridianstar.com.

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