"It was an exciting time! We were developing something that didn't exist."
That's how Dr. Joan Butler remembers the work with her colleague and neighbor, Dr. Gloria Correro during the spring of 1979. Dr. Butler was the principal at Overstreet Elementary in Starkville, and Dr. Correro was spearheading a pilot program at the school called the MSU-Starkville Cooperative Demonstration Kindergarten. The program would create the state's first two public school kindergarten classrooms.
"Dr. Correro, one of the pioneers in early childhood education in Mississippi, was passionate and dedicated to ensuring every young child in Mississippi had the opportunity to attend a quality kindergarten," Dr. Butler shared. "We were fortunate to have the opportunity to share in her vision and work under her leadership to touch the lives of thousands of young children in the Starkville School District."
Gloria Correro passed away on Tuesday, leaving a lasting legacy of early childhood education in the Starkville Oktibbeha School District and across Mississippi. The project she began nearly fifty years ago at Overstreet has grown ten-fold in Starkville and had exponential impact in every county in the state. Research gained from the seven years the cooperative program was in operation was a key driver in the passage of Mississippi's Education Reform Act of 1982 which implemented state-wide kindergarten in public schools by 1986.
"Dr. Correro's leadership of the Overstreet pilot program was instrumental in preparing the foundation for development of statewide kindergarten now in place in Mississippi public schools," said Dr. Larry Box, former Starkville School District Superintendent.
In 1979, only one in twenty children in Mississippi attended preschool as compared to three out of four nationally. The state had the nation's highest illiteracy rate, and only 45% of children who began first grade went on to complete high school. Against the backdrop of dire educational outcomes, Dr. Correro and her colleague Dr. James Turner conceived of the MSU-Starkville Cooperative Demonstration Kindergarten, a partnership between the Mississippi State University College of Education and the Starkville School District. With logistics worked out between then-MSU President, Dr. James McComas and Starkville superintendent, Dr. Nolan Vickers, the cooperative opened two kindergarten classrooms at Overstreet in January of 1979 serving 40 five-year-olds. At the time, there were no other free public kindergarten opportunities anywhere in Mississippi.
"We had 20 children in each class that met down in the basement of Overstreet, and it was hard to make the choices about which children could attend," Dr. Butler said.
According to an article that appeared in the March 1979 issue of "The Mississippi Educator", published by the MSU College of Education, families were able to apply for acceptance into the free, public program, and enrollment was determined by a stratified random selection to ensure classes mirrored the demographics of the overall school district. Overstreet Elementary operated two half-day sessions for the new kindergarteners, one meeting at 8:30 a.m. and one at 12:30 p.m.
The same article described the dual purpose of the Demonstration Kindergarten that served to increase early childhood education, but also train teachers for kindergarten certification. In 1972, the State Department of Education had added a kindergarten endorsement to the elementary teaching certificate, but few meaningful opportunities existed for pre-service teachers to gain knowledge and experience in the unique needs of younger children.
In a Spring 1985 article in Alumnus Magazine, Dr. Correro described the impact the Demonstration Kindergarten had on budding kindergarten teachers at a time when public schools were scrambling to implement newly state-mandated kindergarten requirements. "Our program is looked upon as a model," she said at the time. "We are instructing education majors and outside teachers who observe the program in the basics of curriculum construction for kindergarten programs." Leading up to full implementation of state-wide public kindergarten, it was not unusual for the Overstreet classrooms to host multiple teams from around the state each week as they shared ideas and best practices discovered through the hands-on work in the Demonstration Kindergarten.
"The legacy Dr. Gloria Correro has left the Starkville community and the entire state because of her commitment to early childhood education is truly remarkable," said Dr. Tony McGee, Superintendent of the Starkville Oktibbeha School District. "Countless boys and girls have had a stronger start and a more successful path to graduation because of the work she began at Overstreet. Beyond the kindergarten classroom, the whole idea of the Cooperative was truly groundbreaking and a precursor to many of the partnerships for education, research and teacher training our district currently enjoys with Mississippi State."
As a lifelong educator, Dr. Correro served as an elementary teacher as well as in numerous positions in the MSU College of Education. It was her role as an undergraduate professor at MSU that positioned her to mentor new teachers to be effective in early childhood classrooms.
"Gloria Correro touched my life in a profound way when I was only 20 and an undergraduate student in her Early Childhood Education course," shared Dr. Esther Howard, who was hired as one of the first two kindergarten teachers for the MSU-Starkville Cooperative Demonstration Kindergarten. "So much of what I did thereafter was because of her influence and the opportunities she made possible."
Dr. Howard and Diane Faulk served as the first two full-time teachers for the Overstreet kindergarten classrooms in 1979, and worked with Dr. Correro to develop effective ways of engaging their young students through hands-on arts and math activities, learning centers, group time, multi-media presentations and field trips -- pioneering many of the best practices used in kindergarten classrooms today. The impact of Dr. Correro's devotion to students, however, went well beyond kindergarten.
Dr. Howard shared about a particularly hard day in the kindergarten classroom when she found herself discouraged and comparing her work to that of more experienced teachers.
"Gloria stopped by my classroom at the end of a long and trying day and she asked me how I was doing," Dr. Howard shared. "In her wisdom and encouraging way, Gloria said, 'You just keep working on being the best Esther Howard you can be, and if you do that, then you will make a difference in many young children's lives.' That was a powerful statement for me to hear from my mentor. She sure made a difference in my life and I am forever grateful for her guidance, encouragement, support, and friendship through the more than 30 years I knew her as my professor and later as my colleague and friend."
The MSU-Starkville Cooperative Demonstration Kindergarten that began in 1979 under Dr. Gloria Correro's leadership expanded to serve more children in Starkville each year, and continued to serve as a model and means of training as Mississippi did the hard work to fully implement kindergarten as part of every child's public education experience. Her work put the Starkville School District five years ahead of other communities in ensuring every child had access to free kindergarten.
The 40 students served in the first cooperative kindergarten classrooms expanded to more than 200 students by 1986 when the Starkville School District fully implemented the Education Reform Act requirements. Today, kindergarten classrooms at Sudduth and West Elementary Schools serve more than 400 five-year-olds each school year. In the 2023-2024 school year, nearly 33,000 students are enrolled in public school kindergartens state-wide.
"The legacy of Dr. Correro in the lives of our young children is immeasurable," said Dr. Tony McGee. "I'm grateful for her passion and commitment to ensuring every child can have the best beginning, and honored that our district could serve as a partner in seeing her vision realized throughout Mississippi."