Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning

The University of Mississippi School of Education

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Hunger for Knowledge is Second Place to Being Hungry

Growing up I was fortunate. My father owned a country store so we always had plenty of food to eat, he made sure of that. In retrospect, I really had too much food to eat as evidenced by my lifelong struggle with weight gain. I was reminded a few weeks ago that for many children, both then and now, that was not and is not the case. Our staff was engaged in a teacher training session in a town in the Mississippi Delta when a knock on the door of the training room was heard. A participant opened the door and found a young boy looking in at the group. He asked if we had any food. He was given some snacks and sent on his way.

When the local teachers were asked about the frequency of children requesting food, they responded that children in the neighborhood often come at lunch time looking for food from the staff. They deduced this was probably due to the fact that the children assumed someone had food there even though the school site was not part of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) which was in other schools in the district. This national program is administered by the USDA, which ensures that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session.

According to the USDA, the estimated prevalence rates of food insecurity during 2013-15 ranged from 8.5 percent in North Dakota to 20.8 percent in Mississippi. For years, The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been the cornerstone of the nation’s nutrition assistance safety net, offsetting the cost of food for those who qualify. Benefits are available to most people who meet the financial and nonfinancial requirements, and the program serves a broad spectrum of low income people. In Fiscal Year 2015, SNAP provided about $0.92 billion dollars in food benefits to a monthly average of 636,322 people in Mississippi. The program served 82.8 percent of Mississippians eligible for benefits in 2014. In 2017, the USDA released a report on SNAP benefit distribution that listed every Congressional District in Mississippi. The report stated more than 50 percent of families statewide receiving SNAP benefits had children under 18 years of age.

To combat hunger in our state, we have to acknowledge it exists and contributes to health issues plaguing our citizens. As previously stated, Mississippi leads the nation in food insecure households. Low-income individuals are at increased risk for both food insecurity and obesity. Lower-income individuals often have more limited access to affordable, healthier food options — living in neighborhoods with fewer grocery stores with less healthy options — and that have more available less expensive food options, such as processed or fast foods, are of lower nutritional value and are calorie-dense with added sugar and/or fats. In addition, some families have cycles of food deprivation and overindulgence — where they restrict or skip meals sometimes due to lack of funds — which can contribute to increased risk for obesity.

One reason we must combat hunger in our state is due to how it negatively impacts learning. According to Feeding America, hungry children are more likely to repeat a grade in school, experience developmental delays and have more social and emotional problems.

To further reduce hunger in Mississippi, we must not allow the funding of the SNAP program to be jeopardized by a reduction in federal funding or a shift to move the financial responsibility to states. This plan, proposed by the current administration, would be devastating to hundreds of thousands of Mississippians.

Communities across the state are trying to fill in the gaps with weekend food packs for students and summer feeding programs that are not government sponsored to offset the limited access to the school-based feeding programs in some communities, but more must be done.

My Daddy’s memories of growing up hungry stayed with him throughout his life time. They would manifest themselves from time to time in unexpected ways, but at his death in his mid-eighties, he was still asking if we had enough to eat at every meal we ate together. Given my experiences, is it fair to ask, what memory will the young boy who knocked on the door asking for food carry with him and what will be the effects?

By Dr. Cathy Grace

When Times are Bad for Poor Children, They’re Bad for All of Us

According to a news article published in the Daily Journal on June 18, an analysis conducted by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation lists Mississippi among the 11 states who are the most likely to have trouble adapting to the changes in Medicaid funding proposed in the American Health Care Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. According to Therese Hanna, executive director of the non-partisan Center for Mississippi Health Care Policy, the Kaiser findings are similar to those of other organizations. Based on a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid report, health care spending makes up 21 percent of the Mississippi economy, and Medicaid is 20 percent of that. The state receives nearly 75 cents in federal funds for every $1 spent in the program to take care of poor children, their caregivers, pregnant women, the disabled and elderly.

Proposed cuts will result in hard choices which usually mean bad consequences, if you happen to be poor. In this case, the consequences could well extend beyond the poorest. If health care spending constitutes 21 percent of Mississippi’s economy and Medicaid is 20 percent of that, jobs in the health care field and related areas such as drug and medical equipment stores could be negatively impacted.

According to a report by Associated Press released on June 18, The Mississippi State Personnel Board approved plans for the Department of Mental Health to lay off 125 workers at four facilities, part of an overall plan by the agency to trim employment by 650. Those facing lay-offs include three employees at the North Mississippi Regional Center in Oxford. Their termination eliminates evaluations and therapeutic services to children younger than 3. This is the result of state budget cuts and not the anticipated changes in Medicaid. What that will bring, no one knows.

Lives are on the line and those who are most likely to be at risk for loss of services are those who are the least likely to be heard. Educators, social workers, health providers, business and faith leaders should take the lead in speaking out for our children when decisions have to be made concerning the impact changes in Medicaid and additional possible state budget cuts will have on services in our state. Over the next few months, discussions and decisions will be taking place. Unless citizens take the time to talk to state and federal legislators now, we will be too late.

Where you are born, the year of your birth and if your family makes a living wage could be considered like a game of chance, but growing up healthy should not be a gamble. If the child loses, we all pay, it is just a question of whether it will be sooner or later.

By Dr. Cathy Grace

Trauma and Young Children: A Disastrous Beginning with an Even More Tragic End

We would like to think of childhood as one idyllic day after another, but for hundreds of thousands of children in America, it is anything but carefree. A new report released by Child Trends and the National Center for Children in Poverty, “Helping Young Children Who Have Experienced Trauma: Policies and Strategies for Early Care and Education” illuminates a national tragedy, which we find hard to acknowledge.

The report presents staggering statistics that suggest approximately 35 million children in this country have experienced at least one type of trauma. One quarter of the confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect are with children less than 3 years old, with the most likely victims being under the age of 12 months. The report also points to the fact that children who experience domestic violence are disproportionately young, with 60 percent under age 6 at the time of exposure.

According to Mississippi’s Children 2016, in 2014 in Mississippi, there were 8,435 victims of abuse or neglect , a rate of 11.5 per 1,000 children, increasing 13.8 percent from 2013. Of these children, 71.4 percent were neglected, 17.5 percent were physically abused, and 11.8 percent were sexually abused. Unfortunately, it is possible hundreds more have been abused, but the abuse not reported.

The common types of trauma occurring during the early years include: abuse and neglect; serious, untreated parental mental illness or substance abuse; witnessing domestic violence; prolonged separation from or loss of a loved one; and incurring serious injuries or undergoing painful medical procedures. Some children face multiple types of trauma simultaneously or over time. Trauma exposure that begins early in life, takes multiple forms, is severe and pervasive, and involves the caregiving system (parents and other primary caregivers) is referred to as complex trauma. Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) suggests that many young children also endure complex trauma. Approximately 70 percent of children who have suffered trauma experience three or more ACEs by the time they reach 6 years old.

Trauma’s impact on children is disastrous on many levels. Brain development is compromised, cognitive development and learning is delayed and social-emotional disorders such as post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are likely to occur, in some children as young as 12 months.

Early childhood (EC) professionals have a significant role in helping young children recover from trauma. In that regard, evidenced-based training for EC teachers and others in a child’s support system is recommended. A systemic approach, often called trauma-informed care (TIC) or a trauma informed approach, is needed. TIC also requires collaboration with other community service organizations to address the needs of traumatized children proactively and to establish program, local and state policies that address their unique needs.

In Mississippi, given the significant budget cuts to the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, resources for supporting the mental health needs of infants and toddlers are non-existing. This report brings into focus the need to make investing  in mental health services and programs for young children and their families a priority. Unfortunately, the priority our legislators seem to place on our children’s health and welfare, reflected in their budgetary decisions, indicates children are at the bottom of the list.

By Dr. Cathy Grace

New Study Points to Importance of Early Education

A report recently released by the Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child has dramatically revised the estimates of how quickly the baby brain develops new neural connections per second in the first few years of life. The Center previously found the brain makes 700-1,000 neural connections per second and has now revised the number to be 1 million connections per second.

This new finding supports the work of educators who have stressed the importance of positive stimulation for babies from the day they are born in supporting their healthy development. The speed occurs when conditions are optimum: a stable home, good health and nutrition, caring and responsive parents, high quality out-of-home care and a strong support system that lifts up parents and children as important contributors to the development of any community.

It appears the decision makers in Mississippi have let our babies and their families become pawns in their power games as evidenced by the last legislative session. Staggering cuts to the Mississippi Department of Health and Mental Health will impede state health professionals by reducing access to health services to all of us, including babies. A bill that would authorize Medicaid and the Department of Human Services to contract with a third party vendor to vet the eligibility of new beneficiaries and weed out people who were trying to qualify for services with both agencies was passed, with no statistics given on the current amount of funds lost from fraud. The cost for the third party contract is unknown, as well as if the current level of fraud justifies the funding. So, is the cost of the contract worth the “savings” to the state?

Meanwhile, those baby brains are developing (or not).

If this past legislative session is any indication, community support to families and children will be critical in attempting to close the gap in child well-being services and education now that multiple tax cuts will be enacted in 2018. According to the Clarion-Ledger, a report from the Legislative Budget Office indicates the impact of about half of the tax cuts passed is unknown. It is known that the development of the early months and years in a child’s life is critical for later school success and adult productivity. But, to grow a strong economy 20 years from now by investing in Mississippians involves decisions our elected officials in Jackson apparently are unwilling to make.

Meanwhile, baby brains are developing (or not).

Soon we will fund a special legislative session since all of the business of the state was not finished on time. This probably means more money flowing from the future advancement of the state to continuing the arguments of today. When a Nobel prize winning economist like Dr. James Heckman repeatedly states the best investment with the greatest return is early childhood education—especially in the care and development of babies—you would think someone in this state who maintains economic development is the solution to our problems would listen.

Wouldn’t you?

By Dr. Cathy Grace

Paying for School Choice by Repealing ESEA (Title I) is a Bad Idea in Mississippi

In January, House Bill 610 (HR 610) or  the ‘‘Choices in Education Act of 2017’’ was introduced in the U.S. Congress which, if passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, would repeal The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 6301 et seq.). The ESEA was recently amended and renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that was signed into law in 2015.

In a nut shell, this means the funds, which have been used since 1965 to serve low-income students and to provide federal grants for textbooks and library books, funding for special education centers and scholarships for low-income college students will be distributed for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for parents of students to choose where they wish their child to be educated. The bill also would repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools. As this proposed law currently stands, there is no mention of educational services to children with special needs.

The ESEA is the primary source of federal aid to K-12 education. Title I-A is the largest program in the ESSA, funded at $14.9 billion for FY2016. It is designed to provide supplementary educational and related services to students attending p-12 schools with relatively high concentrations of students from low-income families. For states to receive the allocation of ESSA funding, which is determined by the U.S. Department of Education based on student eligibility, each state must submit a plan detailing how funds will be spent and then, upon approval, funds will be disbursed. HR 610 will change the funding formula as well as the process for states to receive funds. This new bill only defines how funding will be determined and offers no accountability requirement for what the funding will yield.

In states such as Mississippi, school choice may not be the answer for all children in every community to get the education their parents seek.  For example, children whose parents wish for them to attend another school located 50 miles away may have the responsibility of transporting their child to their school of choice. According to HR 610, the plan submitted by the state to receive the re-purposed ESSA funding will provide for children ages 5-17 to attend any type of school, including home school. However, there is no statement related to accountability of schools “of choice,” including home schools, for a standard related to student outcome.

For parents who choose for their children to attend a private school, they will receive a voucher to offset their personal cost and, “The amount of any payment under this section shall not be treated as income of the child or his or her parents for purposes of Federal tax laws or for determining eligibility for any other Federal program.” (Lines 20-24) There is no mention of students meeting learning standards as set by the state.

In Mississippi, we have clusters of counties where the local tax base is low and school funding is dependent in large measure on state allocations. The Federal share in education often makes the difference in the quality and type of educational services provided even though it is relatively small in comparison to local and state funds required for schools to operate. If ESSA funds are removed on a per child basis from one district to another when parents choose to relocate their child, what will happen to the quality of education for the children whose parents are unable or unwilling to move their child?

Will the additional funding “schools of choice” receive as new children enroll actually meet the costs of providing the sought after educational opportunities? Or, will it weaken the overall educational program at the “choice” schools since funding may not be enough to cover additional faculty or course offerings?

We know that ESEA, and now ESSA funds have made the difference in children’s success in meeting the Literacy-Based Promotion Act. They have done this by allowing school districts to employ additional literacy coaches, reducing class sizes and providing pre-k classes.

Since our state leaders are having great difficulty determining how to develop a state funding formula for our schools, what kind of mess would our children be in if HR 610 (or something akin) is passes?

By Dr. Cathy Grace

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