Why Are Mississippi’s Youngest Students a Top Priority For This Big Foundation?

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has a long history of early childhood funding, and lately, it's been leading the charge to expand pre-K at a moment when this issue has finally made it on the agenda of both Washington and many state governments. As we've reported, Kellogg is a key funder of the First Five Years Fund, the top advocacy group in Washington, D.C. that's promoting early childhood education.

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It's also pushing for progress in helping the youngest children learn in some states, including deep into the American South. Mississippi has consistently ranked at the very bottom, if not the very last, in educational performance surveys. When the state first administered a kindergarten readiness assessment in 2014, two-thirds of children scored below the benchmark for early literacy skills. Meanwhile, Kellogg—which has long made Mississippi a geographic focal point of its grantmaking—has been paying attention and helping hatch some big plans. 

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Recently, Kellogg committed a three-year, $3 million grant to the University of Mississippi to help faculty train pre-K teachers across the state. The university’s North Mississippi Education Consortium will receive a million dollars each year for the next three years to get pre-K teachers ready for new demands being placed on the ECE workforce. This is well-timed because the Mississippi Department of Education will require all state public school teachers to have a special license endorsement starting next year.

The university’s graduate center co-director, Cathy Grace, described the pre-K teacher training plan like this:

We are creating a system of training to build certain capacities in school districts. Different training opportunities will allow both teachers and principals to get information that is appropriate to their role. We also want to inform teachers of what will be expected of them by the state as it changes its requirements and evaluations.

Now, in-person and online courses will be offered to teachers seeking their state-required pre-K endorsement.

A big focus of this new training plan is to expose teachers and administrators to new research in neuroscience about young minds and how to shift professional practice accordingly. These are things that pre-K teachers who are primarily focused on basic needs and caregiving haven't traditionally concerned themselves with. But as we've reported, the new brain science is having a seismic impact on the field of early childhood education, helping both make the case for larger public investments and leading to new approaches. Some funders are paying keen attention, here, and Kellogg is among them. (Along with other players, like the Bezos Family Foundation.)

Of course, the more traditional arguments for pre-K resonate strongly, too. And more studies have piled up finding that investments in public pre-K education deliver a lot of bang for the buck. While this cause has long been a favorite of liberal advocates, pre-K is now generating bipartisan support, including from Republicans who are looking for ways to boost long-term growth and also deliver more for a working class base under significant economic stress.

After many years in the trenches fighting for early childhood education, Kellogg has lately been moving to capitalize on a changed political landscape that's grown more receptive to this issue. Recently, for example, it made a $400,000 grant to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation to "Inform and activate state and local chambers of commerce and the business community to support high-quality child care as a critical component of the early education system." This is an unusual partner for Kellogg, and underscores how the terrain is shifting on one of its top priorities, especially in the states. 

Taking a step back, Kellogg’s connection to Mississippi institutions of higher education seems to be getting stronger by the year. Back in December 2016, Kellogg gave a $900,000 grant to the University of Southern Mississippi’s Dr. Julie Cwikla, who’s the director of creativity & innovation in STEM. This grant went toward finding new ways to teach children math. More specifically, Cwikla has been working to develop digital and interactive math stories to expose children between the ages of two and six to math concepts early on.

In terms of grant dollars, the Kellogg Foundation continues to be one of the most important early childhood grantmakers in the country. An overarching theme in this funder’s ECE grantmaking is collaboration and working alongside government and the business sector to advance shared goals. Beyond Mississippi, other priority regions of focus for Kellogg include parts of Michigan, New Mexico, and New Orleans. Learn more about Kellogg ECE grants here.