Head Start students score lower than peers in pre-K, but gap expected to close this fall

Four-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K through Head Start did not fare as well as their counterparts enrolled in school districts last year, which state officials attributed to more time spent in virtual learning.

Early Learning Collaborations (ELCs) are a form of public pre-K, made up of partnerships between school districts, Head Start agencies, child care centers, and nonprofit groups. The collaborations follow the same curriculum and share professional development opportunities and resources, with the goal of providing all enrolled students with the same quality of education.

Last month, the Mississippi Department of Education released the most recent results of the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, which measures public kindergarten and kindergarten students on their early literacy skills. It is used as a pedagogical basis for teachers, and students who achieve their benchmark score have been shown to become proficient in reading by the end of third grade. This spring, 48% of students in an ELC through Head Start achieved the benchmark score, while 71% of other ELC students did.

Edshundra Gary, director of early learning for the Greenwood Leflore School District, attributed the decline to a few weeks of wasted instructional time teaching students who have never attended daycare how to behave in class and how to observe children. COVID safety protocols.

Students who participate in Head Start, a federally funded program that promotes school readiness among children from low-income families, are shown in previous years’ data to score somewhat lower than their counterparts. ELC, but still score well above the state benchmark for reading readiness. During the pandemic, all students started lower, but the gap between Head Start students and other participants widened compared to previous years.

Jill Dent, director of the Office of Early Childhood for the Mississippi Department of Education, attributed this difference primarily to virtual learning. Although it varied locally, she said more Head Start students were virtual than other ELC students.

Despite this, Dent expressed confidence that students will soon regain their reading scores.

“This next year of kindergarten is really going to help them,” she said. “They will have a strong full year at school, and I expect them to catch up and be back on track by the end of the year.”

Sunflower County Consolidated School District Early Years Director Leigh Ann Reynolds also identified ways to fill the gaps. The Delta Health Alliance, which runs Head Starts in the county, also has a summer program that it says has gotten kids hitting the right benchmarks by the end of the summer.

This gap could be resolved soon, as every Head Start in Mississippi will fully return to in-person instruction this fall according to the Mississippi Head Start Association. Nita Thompson, the organization’s executive director, said it was a combination of federal guidance and local decision-making on whether to keep students virtual over the past two years, but that the ability to resume home visits and engage parents in the classroom will help students get back on track.

Thompson also pointed out that there are still significant benefits to participating in pre-K programs, including emotional and cognitive development and learning about relationship building outside of the home. Research has also shown that participating in early learning decreases the likelihood of students being retained and increases the likelihood of graduating from high school.

Thompson said a student’s early learning experience is not only affected by time spent in person, but also by community resources such as access to transportation, parks and playgrounds, healthy food options and health care.

“All of these things will impact development, and in particular attendance, and we know there is a direct correlation between attendance and growth,” she said.

Micayla Tatum, associate director of early childhood policy at Mississippi First, expanded on this point, saying that Head Start, by design, serves students of low socioeconomic status, which research suggests means that ‘they are more likely to struggle with literacy due to stress levels. She also said people with low socio-economic status were also more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic, causing many Head Start students to need extra help to reach the same level as their peers.

“Families are recognizing that their children haven’t learned as much in the past two years as they would have in a full-time program, so I think families are also ready to re-engage and connect to each other.” ensure that their children realize these gains,” says Thompson.

— Article credit to Julia James of Mississippi Today —

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