South Mississippi legislators, educators push mandatory kindergarten

CclKk.AuSt.77_(1).jpegSonya Bowser Ashley was part of Mississippi's first public kindergarten class in 1976.

Almost 40 years later, she is advocating for a new law -- introduced by the daughter of her kindergarten teacher -- that would make kindergarten mandatory for most 5-year-olds across the state.

"My teachers left a lasting impression on me. My kindergarten teacher gave me the chance to aspire and dream," Bowser Ashley said. Students today "should have the opportunity to dream like we did."

Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, authored the measure, called the "KIDS Act" -- or Kindergarten Increases Diplomas Act -- that would reduce the mandatory age for schooling from 6

to 5 years old. The measure is in honor of Williams-Barnes' mother, Rose Mary Hayes Williams, the first kindergarten teacher in Mississippi under a pilot program in Pass Christian.

It is in committee.

On Monday, Williams-Barnes joined educators, Republican and Democratic state representatives and senators and a group of kindergartners in Gulfport to push for the bill.

"A good strong education has many positive results. In terms of the economy, the workforce, having people be self-sufficient. It all stems from education," she said. "My mother always spoke of the importance of education and instilled that in me and my siblings. And her students."

Making kindergarten mandatory would benefit children for the rest of their lives, supporters said. Going to kindergarten increases the likelihood students graduate, attend college and enter the workforce. More immediately, it gives students an advantage in the newly mandated third-grade reading assessments, which decide whether students progress to fourth grade.

And just one child who did not attend kindergarten can hold an entire first-grade class back, said Mississippi Association of Educators president Joyce Helmick, as a teacher must try to make up a year of instruction the student missed.

"Kindergarten is a magical time in children's lives. It's key," she said. "It's important to life-long learning and academic achievement."

Across the US, all but six states require public schools to offer kindergarten but only 15 states and the District of Columbia require students to attend.

The initiative in Mississippi comes among a wider push improve early childhood education.

Mississippi already boasts high kindergarten attendance, scoring a B-plus on a Kids Count survey in the areas of pre-school and kindergarten attendance, compared to a D-plus nationwide average. That means the cost to implement a kindergarten requirement would be negligible, officials said.

But two out of every three students entered kindergarten in Mississippi in fall 2014 without the skills required for learning, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

Although experts almost unanimously agree on the benefits of attending kindergarten, they acknowledge the need to increase the quality of some programs and to get kids into pre-school before 5 years old.

Still, a good kindergarten program will follow students for their entire lives, educators said.

Ava Conley, a kindergarten teacher at Gaston Point Elementary in Gulfport, said the mix of play and structure in her class allows students to learn classroom and social skills they'll need for their entire education. Essentially, they learn how to learn.

"There are these light-bulb moments. I get teary eyed," she said. "When they get it, you know they have it. And they keep it."


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