By Alan Burns

For the past two decades, the Family and Children Research Unit has been working to improve the well-being, education, health, and safety of Mississippi’s children. Their work includes small and large scale projects, policy grants, and impactful research.


The evidence has been increasingly compelling over the past 20 years that positive experiences in early childhood influence future well-being into adulthood. Given the less than optimal outcomes of Mississippi’s children, it was clear that a specific unit focusing upon children and families at MSU’s SSRC was needed,” says Dr. Linda Southward, Research Professor at the Social Science Research Center and Coordinator for the Family and Children Research Unit (FCRU).

With an initial investment of $10,000 via MAFES, the FCRU was founded in 1998 at the Social Science Research Center to research, evaluate, and develop programs pertaining to children and families. Within three years of the initial investment, a substantial grant of more than $1 million was awarded from the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.

Southward explains that the extensive array of past and current projects reveals an expertise on topics pertaining to the general well-being of children, including their education, health, and safety. Overall, the projects work to improve outcomes through a wide array of public private partnerships and health care providers.

The FCRU has seen recent funding from such agencies as: The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Center for Mississippi Health Policy, the Mississippi Association of Grantmakers, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Woodward Hines Educational Foundation, and the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi.

Mississippi Data Project

The Family and Children Research Unit team is currently at the mid-point of a three-year project funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF). The goal of the Mississippi Data Project (MDP) is to enhance data-driven decision making and promote best-practices and policies for children in Mississippi. This past year saw the roll-out of the MDP website which is populated with fact sheets, infographics and maps. The team has also produced several reports and policy briefs as the result of research in the areas of suspension practices in Mississippi public schools and birth outcomes for Mississippi children.

Mississippi KIDS COUNT: A Decade of Service to Mississippi’s Children

For the past ten years, the FCRU has served as the home of the Mississippi KIDS COUNT (MS KIDS COUNT) program. The program is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), a private philanthropy based in Baltimore, Maryland that provides grants for federal agencies, states, counties, and communities. These grants are used to address issues affecting children such as poverty, disconnection from family, and limited access to opportunity.

“Mississippi KIDS COUNT is the leading resource for comprehensive information on the health, education, safety, and economic well-being of our state’s children,” says Southward. “We also serve as a catalyst for improving outcomes for children, families, and communities.”

The project strives to provide accurate, non-partisan data and original research about Mississippi’s children to policymakers, educators, parents, advocates, and the general public. This research and data is presented each year in various formats including the annual MS KIDS COUNT Fact Book, the Mississippi section of the national KIDS COUNT Data Center, policy grants and briefs, and most recently with the MS KIDS COUNT Legislative Countdown Calendar.

Each year, MS KIDS COUNT releases a state-wide fact book at the annual Mississippi KIDS COUNT Capitol Day. This book, which is provided to all members of the Mississippi Legislature during Capitol Day, highlights current state-level data on Mississippi’s children.

Sammy Moon, Coordinator of the Mississippi Association of Grantmakers, notes, “The integrity and reliability of KIDS COUNT data is important for both the public and private sectors in Mississippi because it provides a baseline from which programs and initiatives can be planned and evaluation protocols can be developed. If elected officials, nonprofit stakeholders, and philanthropic investors are all working together using the same information, better decisions will be made for Mississippi’s children, families and communities.”

The team also provides important state, county, and/or school district-level data for the KIDS COUNT data center. This national and state-level resource for indicators related to children’s well-being is maintained by the AECF and the individual state-level grantees. Data provided includes updated demographics, education, economic, health, and community data from state agencies and the United States Census Bureau.

This year also marked the launch of their Legislative Countdown Calendar. The calendar was placed on the Mississippi State Capitol desk of each legislator on the first day of the 2017 session. The 90-day calendar featured information relating to the well-being of Mississippi’s children and families, as well as a countdown of days left in the legislative session. The calendar also featured artwork from Mississippi 5th graders on weekend pages.

“The Legislative Countdown Calendar allows Mississippi KIDS COUNT to put facts and information pertaining to the well-being of Mississippi’s children in front of our
state legislators each day of the session. The goal is to equip our legislators with research and data so that they can make the best decisions for the future of the children in our state,” says Laure Bell, a Project Coordinator for the FCRU.

Following the Data Policy Grants

MS KIDS COUNT has also done extensive work on policy grants and briefs since 2014. They were awarded a “Following the Data” policy grant from the AECF in 2014 and have been building upon that initial work with a new grant each year. The FCRU uses the grants to address policy and system changes needed to favorably impact health and educational outcomes for Mississippi’s youngest children (0-8 years old). Overall, the goal is to increase awareness among stakeholders on the importance of school attendance beginning in Pre-K and ensure health, developmental, and social and emotional screenings for Pre-K children.

The primary focus in the last three years’ grants has been to show the importance of school attendance by providing in-depth analysis of chronic absenteeism using data from the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE). Chronic absenteeism is defined as the percentage of students who miss ten percent or more of the school year, including excused and unexcused absences. This averages to about 18 days in a 180-day school year.

“Chronic absence is a critical indicator of whether students are at academic risk and how likely they are to improve their achievement levels when they are physically present for classroom instruction,” says Anne Buffington, the Principal Investigator of the policy grants and member of the FCRU and MS KIDS COUNT.

Based on this, the team has created five policy briefs outlining chronic absence rates for the state, individual school districts and schools (K-12). These briefs were developed, disseminated, and presented to members of the legislature via legislative conventions, press conferences in collaboration with Dr. Carey Wright, Mississippi’s State Superintendent of Education, and at the MDE’s Chronic Absence Summit.

“When we first started our research, the state chronic absence rate was fifteen percent, but the most recent research has shown a drop to thirteen percent,” Buffington explains. “School administrators are recognizing that tracking attendance during the first two months of school can help to identify at-risk students. Across the state, we are seeing schools adopt improvement plans for individual students and focus on the importance of school attendance through district-wide awareness campaigns.”

Most recently, the fourth grant is beginning a study of suspension policies in Mississippi schools. This study will focus on addressing the disproportionate percentage of African American students who are suspended each year and seeks to address the opportunity to promote more equitable and effective alternatives to traditional disciplinary policies.

Child Care Center’s Pandemic Preparedness

In 2015 and 2016, the FCRU worked closely with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to conduct a national needs assessment of licensed child care centers across America. The study, titled the National Survey of Licensed Child Care Directors, would be used to guide future planning and resource development regarding child care preparation for seasonal/pandemic influenza.

The survey was the most recent in a series of work over two decades between the FCRU, SSRC, and AAP. A formal research partnership was established between the AAP and the SSRC in 2001 by Dr. Arthur Cosby, following Dr. Linda Southward’s selection as one of 50 child health leaders to join the AAP’s Center for Child Health Research.

The SSRC and AAP also partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on the survey. Drs. Timothy Shope and Judith Martin, both Associate Professors of Pediatrics, helped provide subject area expertise in order to design a survey on preparedness that reflected the most current science and best practices.

Beginning in August 2015, the team collected contact information for over 189,000 licensed child care centers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Once all data was acquired and standardized into a database, the FCRU worked with the Wolfgang Frese Survey Research Laboratory (SRL) at the SSRC to conduct the survey. The SRL then interviewed 518 randomly sampled child care centers during the spring of 2016.

The 2016 survey of child care directors was a follow-up to a previous version administered by the SSRC in 2008.

“The timing of the survey was very fortuitous because it gave us the opportunity to look at how child care center directors’ attitudes and behaviors differed before and after the H1N1 pandemic influenza that occurred in 2009,” says Ben Walker, a Research Associate for the FCRU. “To my knowledge, there have been no nationally representative surveys conducted of licensed child care center directors which makes these two surveys especially novel.”

The study, which was published in Pediatrics in June 2017, used six categories to determine pandemic influenza preparedness: general infection control, communication, seasonal influenza control, use of health consultants, quality of child care, and perceived barriers.
Results showed that pandemic influenza preparedness did not improve between 2008 and 2016, with only 7% of directors having taken concrete actions to prepare their centers.

“We know from having completed this survey that pandemic preparedness of child care center directors needs to improve,” says Walker. “Those in child care centers represent about one quarter of all children in the United States, and they are a particularly important population considering the increased ability of influenza to spread in institutional settings.”

Evaluation of Get2College

The most recent project for the FCRU is an evaluation of a new pilot program from the Woodward Hines Education Foundation’s Get2College program. Get2College, founded in 1995, is a multi-faceted program targeted towards increasing the college-going rate of students in Mississippi schools by providing training for school counselors and parents, and one-on-one guidance for students.

Get2College’s newest program utilizes on-site college counseling in eight pilot high schools around the state. The FCRU’s evaluation approach is a three-year, mixed-method evaluation including interviews with school counselors and analysis of program data at both pilot schools and demographically matched comparison group schools.

“By using a mixed methods approach, we’ll be able to collect in-depth data – both quantitative data about the efficacy of the program overall, and qualitative data about the first-hand experiences of counselors and students as they prepare for students’ college transitions,” says Izzy Pellegrine. “This approach should give us real insights into how schools, counselors, and students navigate a very complicated process.”

This evaluation will also include a student focus group component to better understand utilization of Get2College’s on-site services.

The overall goal of the evaluation is to measure the efficacy of Get2College’s programming in assisting students with the college transition process and to make recommendations about continued programming directions.


Visit fcru.ssrc.msstate.edu for more information on the Family & Children Research Unit’s projects, news, and publications. For more information on Mississippi KIDS COUNT, visit
kidscount.ssrc.msstate.edu.

Serving Mississippi’s Children: The Family and Children Research Unit