The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has created an Office of Early Learning. In a press release, the department says the change is part of the agency’s ongoing focus on early learning and early literacy.

Missouri steps up its pre-K efforts

The new office is responsible for administering a $33.5 million federal Preschool Development Grant aimed at coordinating a more effective, high-quality early learning system that helps to make kids ready for school.

It will also support several state early learning programs, such as Parents as Teachers, First Steps early intervention, early childhood special education, Quality Assurance Report pilot, Childcare Block Grant, Missouri Preschool Project, and state- and federally-funded preschool.

Dr. Pam Thomas will head the new office. She previously served as the department’s chief of strategic initiatives and talent development.

“I truly believe that education in early learning can improve your life no matter what age – infants, toddlers, preschoolers, teenagers and their parents,” said Thomas. “We know that prior to entering kindergarten, some children do not have access to the meaningful learning and development programs available in our state. This range of experiences results in kindergarteners with varying levels of foundational skills and behaviors appropriate for the school setting. Our team will work to implement change and, ultimately, set Missouri students up for success in school and in life.”

During Tuesday’s Missouri Board of Education meeting, member Peter Herschend of southwest Missouri’s Branson applauded the formation of the new office.

“I have not seen in my years on this board, I have not seen a program that has greater potential to change more lives in a positive way,” he said.

He has served on the board for about 18 years.

For many years, Missouri has struggled to get enough support from voters and legislators to boost funding for pre-K education. In 2016, a group called “Raise Your Hands for Kids” proposed a 50 cent per pack cigarette tax increase to help fund early childhood education. Missouri voters opposed the plan that would have generated about $225 million annually.

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