Excel by 5: Preparing Our Children Through Health, Happiness, and Education
Many local families may recall seeing booths set up at festivals and school fairs sponsored by Excel by 5 but may still not be sure what this amazing group represents. To clarify, this group is part of a Mississippi-wide initiative intended to help prepare our children in their most formative years, with the hopes that the positive impact will carry them throughout their school years and into adulthood: “The first-of-its-kind in the United States, Excel by 5 is a collaborative model designed to optimize existing learning resources while highlighting the important role communities play in educating their children during the most formative years-birth to five.”
The roots of Excel by 5 were established by a Mississippi kindergarten teacher named Debby Renfroe, who after noticing that many of her students were arriving unprepared to learn in school, expressed her concerns to her husband Steve. Steven Renfroe who worked as the Chevron Public and Governmental Affairs Manager for Mississippi encouraged Chevron to place newspaper ads about developmental milestones for children age birth to five to give parents some guidelines to help them. The program began to take shape, and in 2004 Excel by 5 was officially launched in Mississippi through the efforts of early childhood development experts and a grant from Chevron.
Tupelo/Lee County Certified Community
Under the umbrella of the CREATE Foundation, Lee County is one of 25 certified Mississippi communities with several others in the process of becoming certified, making the current total 38 communities actively involved. There are five different focus areas that are addressed by every Excel by 5 community including: community involvement, family and parent support, health, early care, and education.
Although it has been a presence in our community for several years now, the Tupelo/Lee County Excel by 5 Coalition just became a certified Excel by 5 community over the last year. After a rigorous candidacy, the coalition is now celebrating not only this achievement, but also the success of bringing Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to all of Lee County’s children ages birth to five.
Excel by 5 participates in local events such as Touch-a-Truck, community festivals, and storytimes. It is also responsible for funding new books and activities in the children’s department of the Lee County Library. At each community event it attends, Excel by 5 volunteers set up kids’ tables with educational games that help prepare children for kindergarten. For example, one game involves tweezers with the objective of picking up dog bones to place in a dog’s mouth. Though fun for the kids, this is actually teaching young children how to properly hold a pencil. While kids are busy playing and working, the Excel by 5 volunteers are talking to and educating parents on local resources and milestones. And at all of these events, the children walk away with a free book of their choice. Because early literacy is so important for a child’s development and readiness for school, it is no wonder that Lee County’s Excel by 5 was eager to partner with an established nationally-recognized literary program.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library
Established in 1995 by renowned country star Dolly Parton, the Imagination Library is a non-profit organization that encourages parents to read often to their children by mailing out a free monthly children’s book to each child ages birth to five. She began this program in her home county in Sevier County, Tennessee; however, it has since spread nationwide through select communities and has even touched other countries. At first, Excel by 5 was only able to secure enough funding for the southern part of Lee County to engage in the Imagination Library, but this year it has finally been opened up to all Lee County residents.
At the latest Touch-a-Truck event in September, volunteers eagerly signed up all Lee County children for the Imagination Library. Previously, only 300 children were sponsored throughout Lee County, but by the end of this year that number will have more than doubled. According to Lee County Excel by 5’s informational pamphlet, “61% of low-income children have no children’s books at home.” The Imagination Library is one way to drastically decrease this percentage, although the program is opened to all Lee County children regardless of family income.
Local parents are thrilled for their children to be registered for the Imagination Library.
Amanda Grimes of Tupelo says, “The kids love getting a book in the mail each month.”
Karen Skou says that her children have been receiving books for over a year now from the Imagination Library. She elaborates, “We love it. Even my older kids get excited about new books in the mail.” No stranger to Excel by 5, she says, “We were involved in a few Excel by 5 events held at ECEC when my girls were preschoolers. It is a fantastic program!”
For parents wanting to register their children for the Imagination Library, they can go online to www.imaginationlibrary.com and select Lee County, Mississippi. If the registration is closed, then contact Lee County’s Excel by 5 Coalition at the address or number below because they can manually enter children’s information and/or add them to the waiting list to be added as soon as possible.
Additionally, there are three Resource Centers set up by Excel by 5 for parents, which include educational toy lending, resource materials, and Hatch computers. These can be found at:
- Lee County Library
- Verona Elementary School
- Family Resource Center
For more information contact:
The Create Foundation
P.O. Box 10533
Tupelo, MS 38802
Heather Gausline Tate is an adjunct English instructor, freelance writer, private tutor, and travel agent. She lives in Guntown with her husband Logan and four-year-old son London who is currently awaiting his first book from the Imagination Library.