In 2007, Petal became Mississippi’s first certified Excel By 5 community, a designation that recognizes the Friendly City as an Early Childhood community and its dedication to emphasizing the roles that parents and educators play in the lives of children.
Every three years since then, members of the organization have convened at the Excel By 5 Retreat, with the latest meeting held Tuesday at Sullivan Barn in the Eastabuchie community. During the retreat, members of Excel By 5’s six coaltions – Community, Early Care and Education, Media, Parent and Family, and Health and Steering Committee – got the chance to learn about different education opportunities, partners and demographics throughout the Petal area.
The event started out with a brief history of Excel By 5, followed by a timeline of the organization. Next up was a “Thriving in Mississippi” presentation by Biz Harris, who provided an overview of qualitative data collected over the summer regarding the perception of parents and the services that are provided to young children.
“That study was done all around the state, but she shared specifically what was covered in the study,” said Dede Smith, director of the Coleman Center for Families and Children in Petal. “Basically, they talked about how we can better get the message out about the early childhood services that we offer in the community.”
Participants then played a Bingo game which covered all the different entities that serve young children in the Petal community, including the Petal Children’s Task Force, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and the Petal School District. After the game, Smith shared an Education Nation video regarding the need for infant and toddler care in the community.
“This is our primary area of focus that we’re really concerned about,” Smith said. “There are only 30 licensed slots in Petal, for young children to infants 2 years old, for parents to have day care.
“And so parents are having to leave and take their children to Hattiesburg, and that’s something that we’re really concerned about.”
The event also featured focus groups, in which members of each coalition banded together to come up with solutions for issues commonly encountered in early childhood.
“They’re looking at different scenarios of challenges that we face, and how we would respond to those different situations,” Smith said. “Each one of these focus groups, they will come up with an action plan of what their goals are – how we’re going to address some of the concerns that we’ve talked about.
“The concern related to the minimal number we have for the infant and toddler childcare slots, we have had that concern from the very beginning of Excel By 5. So I feel like we’re in a place now where we’re really going to group together and try to come up with some strategies to address that need.”