Takeaway: Mississippi has limited public early childhood educational options, although the state has recently invested funds into expanding and strengthening pre-K options through learning collaboratives in some communities. The state has had federally-funded Head Start programs since the 1960s, as well as some Title I, business-backed, and locally-funded preschools. Beyond these public options, there are private center- and home-based providers who care for children individually, in small groups, or in larger, more formal programs. The state regulates preschools, centers, and some in-home programs, but many childcare settings and providers are unlicensed. That said, there is growing recognition throughout the state that an expansion of early childhood education options and an increase in quality are vital to preparing Mississippi children for kindergarten and beyond.
Mississippi has several types of early childhood care, ranging from licensed preschool programs to unregulated private home-care providers. In December 2013, the state legislature began distributing $3 million in grants to early childhood learning collaboratives to develop or expand state-funded pre-K offerings in local districts, child-care centers, or in partnership with existing Head Start programs. Although it has had federally-funded Head Start programs and other Title I pre-K offerings for many years, this allocation by the Mississippi legislature represents the first time that the state itself has provided financial support for public pre-K education. In addition, the legislation established benchmarks that align to national standards for pre-K, which is a promising sign of commitment to high-quality early childhood learning opportunities. The state’s efforts will be evaluated after a full year of programming.
Other early childhood options include multi-age, day care centers, family day care in a provider’s home, and in-home care in a parent’s home. While Mississippi’s recent financing is important for expanding access to public programs for 4-year-olds, a significant majority of the state’s pre-K-aged children do not have access to these options. Moreover, because of the state’s comparatively high poverty rates and limited number of public providers, many Mississippi families are unable to enroll their children in private early childhood programs.
Mississippi’s center-based early childhood offerings include public school-based pre-K classes and Head Start programs, as well as tuition-based nursery schools, preschools, day care centers, and parent cooperatives. These offerings range from formal programs that aim to prepare children for kindergarten, to informal options in which children are simply cared for in a center-based group setting during part or all of the school day.
There are a number of different agencies that supervise early childhood providers throughout the state. For example, the Mississippi Department of Education oversees public, locally-funded programs, while the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) governs private, center-based care. Additionally, the federal Office of Head Start works with local agencies to oversee and coordinate these programs. The online search resources for different providers vary according to the governing agency, but most offer only limited information such as contact number, location, capacity, and director’s name.
Governing agencies typically require providers to comply with annual fire inspections, licensure applications, personnel background checks, and specified hours of professional development for staff and directors. In addition, directors and staff must meet age, education, credentialing, and experience requirements according to the type of center in which they work.
For multi-age settings that include more than 12 children, the state sets caregiver-to-child ratios that range from 1:5 for infants up to 1 year old, 1:9 for babies from 1 to 2 years old, 1:12 for 2- and 3-year-olds, 1:14 for 3- and 4-year-olds, and 1:16 for 4- and 5-year-olds. Additionally, providers must limit overall group enrollment to ten children for those up to 24 months, 14 for those up to age 3, and 20 for children ages 4 and up. In groups with children of different ages, the youngest child’s age determines the required staffing ratio.
Group settings that enroll fewer than 12 children have caregiver-to-child ratios of 1:4 for infants up to age 1, 1:8 for babies ages 1 and 2, 1:12 for toddlers ages 2 and 3, 1:14 for children ages 3 and 4, and 1:16 for children ages 4 and 5.
Family day care is a form of home-based care that takes place in the home of the caregiver, though Mississippi does not regulate these providers. Such early childhood arrangements are typically available in rural communities and may be well-suited for families who are seeking a home-like setting, want a provider with a particular religious affiliation, or have multiple children.
Beyond family day care, Mississippi also has providers who care for children in the child’s own home. For families with multiple children, this may be a more affordable option than either center-based or home-based care. That said, these caregivers have varying levels of education, training, and experience, and the responsibility for evaluating their expertise rests with each family.
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