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Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been assessing the needs of early childhood services in the state with funds from a federal grant.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded a $6.5 million grant to DESE in January to fund the Stronger Together Missouri project, which is developing a needs assessment of available services for children from birth to age 5 and updating the state's Early Childhood Strategic Plan.

Information from the needs assessment will be combined with information from the statewide Quality Assurance Report to determine how to help maximize parental choice and knowledge of early learning programs, while improving the quality of early childhood care and education, according to Gov. Mike Parson's office.

Jo Anne Ralston, director of early learning with DESE's Early and Extended Learning office, said last week that listening sessions were held over the summer with families and service providers.

Beyond typical preschool programs, Ralston said things being looked at include "what child care is available at all; we'll be looking at home-visiting programs that are available — it's any services that are available."

She said there have not yet been any updates to the state's strategic plan on early childhood services. "The needs assessment will help inform that," she said.

On the state's Quality Assurance Report initiative, Ralston said, "initial classroom observational assessment" has started with the first two groups of providers in a pilot report program.

The first group is "also receiving improvement strategies, doing regional professional development, conscious discipline training and on-site consultation and coaching," she said.

In terms of where Missouri's work of evaluating its early childhood services places the state compared to other states, Ralston said, "I don't know that we know that answer yet. There are 46 states, and within that is one territory, that are all doing the same exploratory work at the same time."

She said the federal grant given to Missouri was given to all those other states at the same time.

"This was a very short-term grant. We got notified of the actual award in March, and it ends in December and then we've been told there will be an opportunity for competitive bid renewal," she said.

"(The federal government is) calling it a renewal grant, but they're only going to fund, they're saying, 15 to 20 at this point," she added.

If Missouri receives a renewal of the grant, Ralston said, it would be used "to implement the items that are found in the needs assessment and the strategic planning process, and without seeing the funding opportunity announcement, it's difficult to know past that what it might allow us to do. Those are the things we've been told would be in it. There could be other priorities that they outline for us."

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