With a vision for transforming a community through the power of Jesus, the ministry of Mission First began in 1999 with the conversion of the blighted Rosedown Apartments in the Westpark Neighborhood of Jackson. This property became a community center housing medical and dental clinics, legal aid, an educational facility (for supplementary and after-school programs), and a gym. From the beginning, board members had a vision for the potential impact of an early learning program to reach some of the youngest members of our community. Mission First’s Executive Director, Lee Thigpen, and others did extensive research into the needs for and benefits of early childhood education. A grant from the W. E. Walker Foundation
allowed Mission First to conduct an exhaustive study for the proposed school, which led to a business plan for the education-based early learning center. One factor confirmed in the study was that experts agree that classroom readiness is a major obstacle to student success in Mississippi, and that failure to prepare students for kindergarten or first grade results in a financial burden for the state. This burden is made up in part of the cost of students repeating grades as well as the economic hit of students who, after repeating multiple grades, drop out of school without earning a diploma. This impacts future earning capability in a lack of job readiness. State funding has not been able to meet Mississippi’s early childhood education
needs, as evidenced by the fact that, in the Jackson area, there are significantly fewer seats available than are needed in the state-sponsored pre-K program called Head Start. Mission First determined that there is a desperate need for a quality, Christ-centered early childhood education in the greater Jackson area as a cycle-breaker for children and families who have no other good options. Children who have trouble learning early in their schooling, due to lack of preparation or support, or lack of intervention where needed, are likely to become frustrated. This frustration sets a tone and expectation of defeat for the rest of their educational experience. Without the promise of a seat in a public program, or the financial capability of paying for an independent program, families need an alternative to provide a solid educational foundation for their children. Beyond meeting educational needs with quality curriculum and instruction, Mission First realized they were also uniquely suited to meet the children’s spiritual needs. As a partner of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS), the Mission First Early Learning Center is set up to provide a quality, Christ-centered
Opening the Early Learning Center
This vision became reality in August 2018 when the Mission First Early Learning Center opened its’ doors for the first day of their K-3 program. The earlier children are taught in an educational setting, the greater their chance of success will be as they move forward. In this program, families who are actively pursuing a Christ-centered education of excellence for their children pay a school fee that represents approximately 20% of the annual tuition, with the remainder of the cost being supplemented through partnerships with sponsors and donors. Bridging this gap between families’ ability to pay and the cost of providing a sound, Christ-centered, developmentally appropriate education is why Mission First ELC needs the support of donors, grants, and foundations. According to Nobel laureate James Heckman, “Pre-K is the best investment for developing job skills later on in life.” The learning that children need at this stage in life goes far beyond letters, numbers, and colors, to include learning how to follow directions, how to interact appropriately with peers and adults, and how to function effectively as part of a community. Early childhood lays the groundwork for life-long skills. According to the Center for Civic Innovation and Stephen Goldsmith, director of Research at the Alliance for School Choice, the early education movement has been fueled in part by the discovery that, at this point, a child’s brain is more elastic (able to take in information and make connections)
than it ever will be again. This is specific time is when a child’s experiences largely determine how he or she will look at the world and determine truth. This time in a child’s life allows him or her to relate to other people, ideas, and opportunities. This developmental time is when a child’s foundation is set for the trajectory of their future.
Program Mission Statement, Goals, and Collaborations
The mission of the Mission First ELC is to allow young children the opportunity to experience learning through play in a Christian Educational setting with high standards at an affordable cost. The staff are dedicated to partnering with families in loving and encouraging children in their educational developmental process. The Mission First ELC is in partnership with the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS), implementing a nationally accredited program designed to meet individual needs of each student. The program’s goal is to provide a quality Christian education resulting in each student successfully meeting growth each year. It is the desire of each teacher that their students mentally, physically, and emotionally succeed and become difference-makers in our world. Mission First ELC plans to expand the 2018 K-3 program by adding a K-4 program in the fall of 2019 and a kindergarten program in the fall of 2020. This strategic growth plan allows students to develop sound skills from the foundation
up, so that as each additional class is added (4-year-olds in 2019, 5-year-olds in 2020), classes will be comprised of students who have met growth from the previous year and are ready to move forward in the school’s developmentally appropriate curriculum. At the end of each year, student growth is measured with appropriate, criteria-based assessments. At the end of the school’s first year, each student enrolled in the program met their year-end growth goals, which was an excellent sign of the program’s success. Mission First Early Learning Center will continue to monitor and invest in student growth as these children enter first grade and move through subsequent years of education. Mission First values the long-term investment in student growth. For twenty years, Mission First has offered after-school academic enrichment programs and has traced the success of the students involved through college and on to graduate school. These same resources may be utilized to continue to invest in the children enrolled in the Early Learning Center. In order to ensure that facilities are designed and equipped to optimally promote learning, and to ensure that wise curriculum and instruction decisions are made, Mission First ELC has partnered with mentors from a variety of entities including First Baptist Church Jackson, Christ
United Methodist Church Weekday Preschool, MAIS, First Presbyterian Day School, Jackson Public School District, and Mississippi College.
Mission First ELC is poised to meet a critical need for young children in such a way that they may create a ripple effect with wide-ranging impact on communities in the state of Mississippi. Early childhood education researcher David Kirp found that children involved in an early childhood education program are less likely to repeat grades and are less likely to drop out of school. Attending to the educational, social, and spiritual needs of these young children is documentably a sound strategy for securing Mississippi’s economic future. It is the desire of the Mission First ELC to obey Proverbs 22:6 which reads, “Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.”