"That's the key -- this program is community-driven, not a city or county government thing, or just
"I like it because it's inclusive, and because it focuses our efforts and the most benefits on the area that's most in need."
Said Victoria Penny, early childhood resource coordinator at First Regional Library's Hernando Branch: "A large part of what I do is visit pre-schools and day cares, and it's so important to reach children early on to strengthen their learning, to instill a love for books."
Penny joined other community representatives at an Excel By 5 launch last week. Getting involved are schools, early childhood and day care service providers, libraries, parks and recreation, faith-based institutions and groups, and the health care and business sectors.
A collaborative model based in Mississippi, Excel By 5 sets forth standards involving parent training, community involvement, child care and health -- all designed to support young children from birth to age 5 and their families. The "child-friendly community"
"You've got to grab children intellectually at a young age, to help set a successful pattern for all future learning," said Bob Clay, Excel By 5's Jackson-based project manager.
"We already focus a lot of our educational energies on our schools, and that's appropriate," said Johnstone. "But research shows that 90 percent of a child's brain development occurs before age 6. We can influence that positively if we have the means."
Through a $150,000 commitment from the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, an eight-county area is targeted for Excel By 5 certifications over three years. Last June, Crystal Blackmon of Southaven was named as site coordinator for Coahoma, DeSoto, Marshall, Panola, Quitman, Tallahatchie, Tate and Tunica counties
Johnstone said the Excel By 5 campaign should be visible in Hernando later this year through youth health fairs and back-to-school programs that involve the entire family. For now, she said, "we're doing needs assessment and compiling a resources guide."
Certification is getting a head start with ongoing activities and policies, such as the city's Safe Routes to School project and library programs.
"We don't have to re-invent the wheel here," said Johnstone, who visited Petal last year to observe that city's program. Others are blooming nearby, including one in Oxford.
The timing couldn't be better, says Penny.
"There are so many people moving into DeSoto County with small children," she said. Excel By 5 will help parents "know that we have books and instructional materials that are made for little hands, that parents needn't be afraid their child will damage anything. We're here to welcome small children."
And now, she said, "it's great to see doctors, ministers, teachers and all the others getting involved."
-- Henry Bailey: (901) 333-2012
Launched in South Mississippi in the fall of 2004, the first-of-its-kind Excel By 5 certification program is designed to encourage and assist communities in active support of young children and their families.
Excel By 5 emphasizes the vital roles parents and primary care givers play.
"It started with a conversation between a teacher and her husband," said Hernando community development chief Shelly Johnstone, who's helping her city get involved. "She taught kindergarten in Pascagoula, and she came home to tell her husband, a Chrevron executive, 'My kids just aren't prepared to learn. What can we do about it?'"
Originally funded by Chevron and the Phil Hardin Foundation, Excel By 5 was developed by groups ranging from the Early Childhood Institute of Mississippi State University and the Barksdale Reading Institute at the University of Mississippi, to Head Start and the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service.
Eight communities have completed certification: Petal, Pascagoula, West Point, Mid-Jackson, Monroe County, Moss Point, Cleveland and Biloxi. Among 18 candidate communities are Lafayette and Oktibbeha counties, Hattiesburg, McComb and Rosedale.
For more information on Excel By 5, go online at excelby5.com.
Copyright, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN. Used with permission.