Columbus, Mississippi – April 13, 2024 – More than 150 committed early educators convened in the Pope Ballroom on Saturday, April 13th, for the third annual CHEER Conference. Hosted on the campus of The W (Mississippi University for Women), the event offered an immersive seven hours of professional development. It celebrated the invaluable contributions of teachers to the Columbus and Lowndes County communities. CHEER, an acronym for Celebrating and Highlighting Early Education Respect, is an initiative sponsored by The W’s Center for Education Support and Excel by 5 of Columbus-Lowndes. This annual event is provided to childcare providers at no cost, thanks to the generous support of grants, local business sponsorships, and community donations.

Distinguished presenters at the conference included Educare Mississippi, Heather Martin, community coach with Excel by 5, Dr. Julie Parker, Mississippi State Professor and Early Intervention Advocate, and statewide resources for early education. Mary Jo Huff, a renowned national speaker, storyteller, author, recording artist, and educator, delivered the keynote address.

Mayor Keith Gaskin, along with numerous Columbus and statewide industry leaders and executives, enthusiastically participated in the CHEER parade, acknowledging and celebrating the remarkable dedication of early educators in the community.

“We must remember that our economy depends on childcare. More than 98% of all professions in Mississippi make more than childcare educators. But these teachers get up every day and work hard in a classroom so parents and families can also go to work,” said Penny Mansell, Director of the Center for Education Support and member of the Mississippi Excel by 5 Executive Board.

“It is past time that we recognize those who go above and beyond to prepare our children to enter school happy, healthy, and with the skills they need to succeed,” said Keith Gaskin, Mayor of the City of Columbus.

Mayor Gaskin also offered two proclamations from the city. He declared Week of the Young Child 2024 and April 13, 2024, as Early Childhood Educator Appreciation Day in Columbus.

“High-quality early care and education can help eliminate the effects of poverty, detect and remediate delays, and lead to positive outcomes for children and families so they are more prepared to succeed in school and life,” Gaskin said.

The event’s highlight was the announcement of the annual Early Childhood Educator of the Year finalists and overall winner. All finalists received a $100 gift card, with the overall winner, Rachel Edgeworth from Open Arms Christian Learning Center, receiving an additional $300 for her outstanding dedication and compassion to Columbus and Lowndes County families.

Finalists from the Infant-Toddler Group:

• Ashley Reeves from ABC & Me Christian Preschool

• Panda Fortenberry from Open Arms Christian Learning Center

Finalists for the Early Preschool Toddler Group:

• Alexis Nelson from The Assembly Kids Academy

• Bobbie Sue Green from ABC & Me Christian Preschool

Finalists for the Preschool 3-4 year-old Group:

• Libby Rice from The Assembly Kids Academy

• Rachel Edgeworth from Open Arms Christian Learning Center

Finalists for the Prekindergarten 4-5 year-old Group:

• Cindy Galvez from The Assembly Kids Academy

• Megan Berry from Bright Beginnings Preschool

The Overall Early Educator of the Year for 2024:

• Rachel Edgeworth from Open Arms Christian Learning Center

Following the awards ceremony, the CHEER Conference hosted a community EXCELebration luncheon, emphasizing the profound impact of early educators in shaping young minds and futures.

“These early educators are so much more than some perceive as daycare workers or babysitters; they genuinely are brain architects when they have classrooms with high-quality experiences. Follow the brain research that is everywhere right now. It’s no longer OK to say daycare. They care for the whole child. Their job is the most important one in a child’s life. It’s time we celebrate and cherish their hard work as early educators and teachers,” said Mansell.

The Columbus-Lowndes Excel by 5 coalition will convene for its next quarterly meeting on April 25th at 1 PM in the W’s Education building, room 120. Early childhood supporters are invited.

For media inquiries, please contact:

Anna Wood or Penny Mansell

Center for Education Support Mississippi University for Women