- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi is reorganizing how it provides federally subsidized child care to thousands of low-income children, with the Department of Human Services saying it’s trying to create a better-integrated system that focuses on how well children are being prepared for kindergarten.

“We have an opportunity to effect change … ,” Human Services Executive Director John Davis told radio network SuperTalk Mississippi on Tuesday. “We have opportunities to work with a child from birth.”

According to figures collected earlier this year by the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, the federally subsidized program then paid for care for 17,000 children, while almost 14,000 were on a waiting list pending funding.

A written plan outlining changes was presented to the State Early Childhood Advisory Council last week, but Human Services spokesman Paul Nelson said it hasn’t yet been finalized. The plan envisions a transition period running to June 30.

The proposal says every child will get an individualized plan and every family will be offered help by programs run by Human Services and other agencies - including welfare, food stamps and health insurance for children.

Human Services is ending a contract with Mississippi State University Extension Service for support services at year’s end. Beginning Jan. 1, Mississippi’s community colleges will provide many services formerly provided by MSU’s Early Years Network. Human Services and the Community College Board last week signed a $2.3 million contract to cover six months.

The contract calls for community colleges to create early childhood academies to provide the 15 hours of professional development required of child care workers. Mississippi’s 15 community colleges will also provide coaching to help preschool teachers improve and technical assistance to aid child care managers.

The colleges will take over the resource and referral network that guides people to child care centers and will loan materials for use at the centers. Locations at nine community colleges will stay open; off-campus sites in Canton, Durant, Hernando, Grenada, Jackson, Oxford and Starkville will close. Mayfield said new sites will open on campuses in Raymond and Senatobia, and Pearl River Community College will run an off-campus site in Petal, leaving 11 for now. The agreement with Human Services calls for each college to eventually operate a resource center.

The plan calls for scrapping a star-based rating system that some providers had criticized as too focused on expensive buildings and costly equipment. Now, the state will designate centers as “standard” or “comprehensive.” Unlike the current voluntary rating system, all centers would have reached at least the standard level to accept child care vouchers. The department says it will pay comprehensive centers more.

Carol Burnett, executive director of the Low Income Child Care Initiative, said she met Tuesday with Laurie Smith, Gov. Phil Bryant’s education adviser, to discuss the overhaul. Burnett said details remain scarce, but praised the written plan because a standard rating appeared achievable and it appears focused on helping centers improve.

“I really feel like it’s going to be more of a capacity-building focus,” Burnett said.

She said department officials have promised to raise payment rates for all centers, but Nelson couldn’t confirm that. Burnett said higher payments could mean fewer children will get served, assuming funding doesn’t go up.

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Online: State childcare plan: https://bit.ly/2hxo4bk

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

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