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“I’m elated for what this means moving forward,” said Dan Kibodeaux, executive director of the United Way of Southeast Mississippi and Hattiesburg’s co-certification manager. “This is an opportunity for us to get young kids ready for kindergarten.

“The work is just beginning, but I’m ecstatic to have that framework in place.”

Communities begin the Excel By 5 certification process by forming a local team made up of representatives from key community groups. The certification process takes about two years to complete. Certification is awarded for three years.

Communities with Excel By 5 certification work to improve a child’s overall well-being by age 5. Excel By 5 is the only program of its kind in the United States, emphasizing the important role the community has in educating children from birth to 5 years.

Excel By 5 in Mississippi is currently working with 28 communities in the state. Petal was the first community to be certified in 2006. It has been re-certified twice.

Co-certification manager Irene Williams, with the Hattiesburg Public School District, said the work to achieve certification will pay off for Hattiesburg’s littlest residents.

“It’s a long time coming, but we’re happy it’s here,” she said. “It means that the community has come together to focus on our youngest citizens.

“We’re going to provide them with the resources they need before they enter school.”

To become certified, Hattiesburg’s team had to meet a number of requirements including conducting a needs assessment of child care, health, family and community resources, creating an annual guide of community services to assist families with young children and putting on three community-wide events with an early childhood focus.

During the next three years, Hattiesburg’s team will continue to work on Excel By 5 so that the community can meet re-certification requirements including again sponsoring three community events with an early childhood focus, finding additional community services to address early childhood needs and recruiting and training volunteers to assist in community events.

Bob Clay, executive director of Excel By 5 in Mississippi, says the hard work is never done.

“It’s just beginning,” he said. “For the next three years the goal is to really create momentum in the community. The community will actually become more involved with Excel By 5.”

Clay said Excel By 5 is not just about education, it’s about getting everyone in Hattiesburg concerned about the health and well-being of children and their families.

“This is a community initiative,” he said. “It’s about getting the community involved with the issues of children 0 to 5, so they will be nurtured and so they will be prepared for kindergarten and first grade.”

Hattiesburg Public School District Superintendent James Bacchus, who was part of the city’s Excel By 5 coalition, was glad to hear of the certification. But he also said the hard work was yet to come.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of us,” he said. “We know it will take collaboration to continue to move forward.

“Everybody pitched in to accomplish this goal. Our next step is to have every child in Hattiesburg reading proficiently by third grade.”

Kibodeaux said the coalition already was planning its next community-wide event — an EXCELebration to take place in October.

“This is only the end of the beginning,” he said. “The work is not over. Once you’re certified, you can improve. Are you better? What are you doing to advance the cause of children and families?”