OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma was just awarded a competitive grant to improve early childhood development among minority and impoverished populations.

Project HOPE will focus on fostering youngsters before they reach grade school.

Two decades ago Oklahoma revamped early childhood education to make pre-K available statewide, but researchers have found that many kids are still falling behind their peers as they enter kindergarten.

The Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness reports 25 percent of children are not utilizing the free pre-K classes offered in public school.

OSPR Executive Director Dana Andersen says race and family income seem to play a major role.

“Proportionately, more children of color in our state are living in poverty,” Anderson says, “so you kind of put those two things together and that’s typically the population of kids that seem to struggle the most.”

The internationally-recognized children's health group Nemours wants to help change that. They are giving Oklahoma, as well as Florida, Washington and New Jersey, $200,000 to study how to level the playing field.

Andersen says, “That race is a different length depending on where you need to start, so as we think about equity, it’s finding the right mix of what supports each individual.”

Nemours was in town last week hosting a training session for health and education professionals involved in Project HOPE. The goal is to start working with parents before their child is born and share the importance of available programs.

The group will be reaching out to families across the state to learn about barriers they may face as they raise young children, and the project will select one Oklahoma community to focus the study and collaborate with on new ideas.

“We don’t want to make an assumption about what they need,” explains Andersen. “We first have to ask them, ‘what do you feel is going to be most beneficial to help you be successful?’”

This grant will support Project HOPE for a year and a half to two years, as the group develops solutions that can last well into the future.