In January, Kiara Johnson asked the 18 students seated on her classroom rug whether they knew what a volcano was. Little voices talked over one another as they rushed to tell the teacher everything they knew. Johnson cued up a video of the volcanic eruption happening in Hawaii and showed it to the class.
“This is happening now,” she told the students. “Do you know where this is?”
Heads shook as the children waited anxiously for her response.
Johnson turned the globe toward the group.
“We are here in Mississippi and Hawaii is way over here,” she told the 4-year-olds while drawing a line with her finger.
Johnson taught at VanWinkle Elementary School last year. The school “serves as the Pre-Kindergarten hub” for the Jackson Public School District’s JPS/Hinds Pre-K Collaborative.
“The collaborative was very new to our district,” she told the Mississippi Free Press. “What I loved about it was the fact that we all had to learn together.”
The JPS/Hinds Pre-K Collaborative is made possible through Mississippi’s Early Learning Collaborative Act. The law, passed in 2013, established funding for state pre-kindergarten programs known as Early Learning Collaboratives, or ELCs. Each ELC designates a lead partner, either a public school or other nonprofit entity. This partner manages the curriculum and capacity. The partners then collaborate with area head starts and daycare providers to align instruction. Mississippi has 37 early learning collaboratives across the state.
This is the second year of the three-year award for Jackson Public Schools. The school district launched the program last year with $9 million in funding from the Mississippi Department of Education. The collaboration includes the Little Saints Academy, Jackson State University’s Lottie W. Thornton Early Childhood Center and the Hinds County Human Resource Agency’s Head Start. Dr. Felicia Thomas, the early childhood director for Jackson Public Schools, said the choice of partnerships was deliberate.
“It started with our strategic plan making sure we wanted to have a robust early literacy system for our children,” Thomas told the Mississippi Free Press. “We work very well with Jackson State because Jackson State has an early childhood program, and within their program, they are building a pipeline for early childhood educators. Both of the (other) outside partners that have been chosen have (directors with) an early childhood background.”
Mississippi’s pre-K program has received high marks. The National Institute for Early Education Research identified Mississippi as meeting all 10 quality standards for early childhood education in its 2022 report. Mississippi Department of Education data reported that 77% of students participating in ELCs met the Kindergarten Readiness score.
The Jackson/Hinds Pre-K Collaborative served 875 students in 53 classes at JPS schools and the three partner sites. Members from each site met regularly and teachers received ongoing professional development and resources.
“I was a first-year teacher when I started pre-K,” Johnson said. “We had trainings throughout the year once a month. We had trainers to help us understand our online portion of our curriculum and to understand our math portion. The pre-K teachers (would) come together and have different professional development and be able to share experiences and really collaborate.”
Students enrolled in the daycare and head-start pre-K programs are also considered as dual-enrollment students in JPS. All students take the same kindergarten screening tests.
“Through the partnership, the first thing that actually happened is we were able to build relationships together as a team,” Thomas said. “Oftentimes, when you are not in line with the public schools, you look at public schools in a different light. Because of our collaborative, we’re able to (have) more of a hands-on approach and work together as a team.”
Enrollment for the JPS-Hinds Pre-K Collaborative is still open. Thomas hopes to enroll more than 1,200 4-year-olds into the program this year.
“The initial reason (the collaborative) was started was to expand the number of seats (for students),” Thomas said. “Our goal is to offer pre-K around the city to every child. We don’t want any child to just be at home and not enrolled in school.”
For more information on enrolling in Jackson Public Schools, call (601) 960-8700 or visit enrollJPS.com.