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Molding young minds

By Staff
EARLY READING A PLUS – Belinda Kerley reads "The Best Dressed Bear" to her class of 15 four-year-olds at Oakland Heights Elementary. She asks questions about what they have just read when they finish the book to check the students' reading comprehension. Photo by Carisa McCain / The Meridian Star
By Lynette Wilson / staff writer
August 18, 2002
Fifteen four-year-old children started prekindergarten Thursday in Ms. Belinda Kerley's class at Oakland Heights Elementary School.
Except for the occasional frown or puzzled look, the children were all smiles.
All were careful to push their chairs in when they rose from the table, and all responded to the teacher with a "yes, ma'am."
Only one child was heard asking what time his mother would be there to pick him up.
When the children got a little rowdy, Ms. Kerley lowered the lights and the children gave her their full attention.
Thursday was the first day of school for 30 prekindergarten students at Oakland Heights, which in 1996 was the first school in Meridian to offer prekindergarten.
This year there are seven classes at four schools in the city school district; Lauderdale County schools do not offer prekindergarten.
Oakland Heights Elementary principal Kim Benton said at the start of their program, which they call "Little Stars," there were few prekindergarten classes in Mississippi and that she and her staff looked to other states for guidance.
The catalyst
Benton said in the spring of 1995 she looked at test scores and knew something was missing.
But, Benton said there was nothing wrong with the kindergarten curriculum and that something more needed to be done.
Preston Castleberry, Meridian Public School District Title 1 director, said Benton came to him with the idea for a prekindergarten program and they used Title 1 funds to get it rolling.
Title 1 funds are federal funds distributed to school districts based on the number of free and reduced lunches served. The funds are intended as a supplement. They are used to improve teaching and learning and help low-achieving students in high poverty schools meet performance standards set for all students.
There are six Title 1 schools in Meridian.
Castleberry said it costs the district $358,465 a year to run six of the seven prekindergarten classes. He said Witherspoon Elementary funds its own class with their own Title 1 funds.
He said the money is spent on teacher supplies and educational materials. There are three adults in each classroom: a teacher, a teacher's assistant and a volunteer foster grandparent. Both Meridian Community College and Mississippi State University send student volunteers to the classroom to help.
The pay off
Meridian Public School District superintendent Janet McLin last week presented the school board with test results tracking students from the first class in 1996 and subsequent years to the present
McLin said this is the first time students were tested through the fourth grade.
McLin said lack of money and space are the reasons prekindergarten is not offered district wide.
State level
Early childhood education is all the rage among academics and researchers publishing studies, dissertations and articles touting the emotional, cognitive and behavioral benefits of infant and early childhood learning.
Correlations can be made between educational achievement, long-term developmental outcomes, adolescent violence and juvenile arrests.
Grace said early childhood education is critical to work force development and that 20 years from now, Mississippi's investment could pay off five fold.
Bonita Coleman-Potter, Mississippi Department of Education director of reading, early childhood education and language arts, said 27 districts offer prekindergarten in the state of Mississippi.
However, Grace said it is not likely for school districts to require prekindergarten classes any time soon. Even though schools are required to offer kindergarten, student attendance is not compulsory until the first grade.