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By STEVEN NALLEY
The Excel By 5 Oktibbeha County Coalition met Wednesday at the Community Counseling Services office to discuss plans for several initiatives leading up to the county‚Äôs potential certification as an Excel By 5 community this summer.
The certification would culminate a two-year effort to better prepare Oktibbeha County‚Äôs children for kindergarten by implementing community events, parenting programs and other initiatives. Excel By 5 Sites Coordinator Gabrielle Phillips said the coalition focuses on four areas to achieve certification ‚ÄĒ early care and education, health and safety, family and parent support and community involvement.
‚ÄúOktibbeha is this close to certification,‚ÄĚ Phillips said, pinching a finger and thumb together. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre right on the cusp. We‚Äôre hoping this summer Oktibbeha will be (Mississippi‚Äôs) 10th certified community.‚ÄĚ
Phillips also said Excel By 5‚Äôs influence is growing throughout the state.
‚ÄúWe just got our 33rd candidate community ‚ÄĒ Gulfport came on board this week,‚ÄĚ Phillips said. ‚ÄúHollandale should be certified at the end of the month.‚ÄĚ
The coalition features committees for each of the four focus points, and representatives from each subcommittee reported on their progress at the meeting. Julie White, community involvement representative, said only two more tasks remain, one of which is developing a list of contributors who can donate to the Excel by 5 cause.
‚ÄúThe other thing is we‚Äôve got to plan our next town hall meeting,‚ÄĚ White said, ‚Äúwhich we will do again with United Way‚Äôs kick-off in August.‚ÄĚ
Jan Taylor, early care and education representative, said her committee is establishing partnership meetings between schools, head start programs and childcare centers. She said it is also developing a Back to School Bash for children about to transition from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten and their parents.
‚ÄúThis is an effort for them to find out more if they have questions,‚ÄĚ Taylor said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôll have a bus to walk through and books to give out and some screenings.‚ÄĚ
One other early care requirement for Excel By 5 is for 60 percent or more of licensed early child care centers to participate in environmental evaluations through the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale-R or the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale-R. Taylor said only one more child care center is needed to meet this criterion, and the committee is working to secure it.
‚Äú(ECERS-R and ITERS-R) are tools to assess the environments for classrooms that serve those specific age groups,‚ÄĚ Taylor said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a major way to encourage environments for learning in our area. This is not regulation. It‚Äôs not a matter of what the feedback is ... it‚Äôs that you‚Äôve agreed to do it.‚ÄĚ
Linda McGrath, health and safety representative, said her committee is planning a community health fair in conjunction with the Back to School Bash. Also in the works is a meeting for new mothers to discuss and address health issues, she said, providing them with such amenities as healthy snacks, exercise classes, yoga, massages and hand therapy.
‚Äú(We would) have a section for parenting ideas and also have someone available for counseling,‚ÄĚ McGrath said. ‚ÄúIt would be for women six-months pregnant because it‚Äôs very important for the pregnancy, up to 12 months of parenting.‚ÄĚ
McGrath also announced another program she leads, La Leche League, has received a Healthy Starkville grant of $600. La Leche League provides education, information and support for women interested in breastfeeding their babies.
Finally, family and parent support representative Iris Sharp said Emerson Family School is hosting parenting classes, including anger management classes April 3, 10, 17 and 24. She said the committee will also meet the requirement for a community-wide event to address family needs on Dec. 8, in coordination with one of the community‚Äôs Christmas programs.