Development, education are linked in area

To find the key to economic growth in Madison County, look no further than 3- and 4-year-olds, education leaders say.

“The first day of college begins in pre-school,” Hank Bounds, the commissioner of Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning told a room full of business and education leaders last week.

Speaker after speaker extolled the benefits of how a good education, starting before kindergarten, leads to solid economic development at the Ridgeland forum sponsored by the Madison County Business League.

Madison County continues to grow in population and in manufacturing jobs, good indicators of economic development, said Phil Pepper, the recently retired state economist. “You can attribute the growth to the quality of education,” he said.

Bounds said he was excited “to see business leaders who get it” – that the key to economic growth is education. But it’s not just teachers, principals and superintendents that are responsible for student’s learning, he said. Parents, business leaders and the community as a whole are part of the educational landscape, he said.

“Get into the game,” he told the Business League. “Find a way to be supportive. We need your help.”

Students aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade will have problems catching up or going to college, Bounds said. “We know students who can’t read the end of third grade exponentially are more likely to drop out and go to prison.”

Children who don’t go to preschool or have parents reading to them start kindergarten start kindergarten with fewer words than those who are prepared, he said. “We’ve got to think differently how we attack that issue,” Bounds said.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Burnham said Mississippi on the whole has made strides in education. “But the problem is it’s not fast enough for us to make any kind of challenge in the nation,” he said.

The problem is that too many students “start so far behind in kindergarten,” he said. “If we have one great challenge in the state, it’s one of advancing early childhood education. By the time students start kindergarten, much of what we’re trying to accomplish has been missed.”

Madison County Superintendent Mike Kent said early childhood education will “make a difference in the state. It will give the biggest bang for your buck in student achievement.

“We’re lucky in a portion of the county where there is a highly educated clientele that is committed to early childhood education. These parents are reading at home to their kids and they arrive at kindergarten ready to ready or already reading,” Kent said.

Kent said Madison County schools are already doing what was advocated by the keynote speaker at the forum, a nationally recognized education consultant: making reading a priority across all subjects, not just in reading class.

“Every teacher has got to teach reading,” said Bill Daggett, CEO of the International Center for Leadership in Education. “Make literacy a priority.”

If Mississippi is not ready to invest in pre-school, “you’re still thinking like 1980,” Daggett said. The state’s education system is doing good by the eighth grade level, he said, “you almost catch up but then you fall off by 12th grade because you’re not teaching reading.”

Article by Lucy Webber from the MC Herald ยท Sept. 7, 2010