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Mogul's literacy program pays off in Mississippi

Susan Notes: I can't pretend to know much about this foundation or the work they do, but anybody who gets books into children's hands gets my vote. And the setup of the foundation looks good. It's local. Here's the board of directors. Note how the board finds its members among local education experts, including elementary teachers:

Claiborne Barksdale
Chief Executive Officer, Barksdale Reading Institute, Oxford

Tom Burnham
Dean, School of Education, The University of Mississippi

Susan Barksdale Howorth
Barksdale Family Representative, Oxford

Bill McHenry
Institutions of Higher Learning, Jackson

Andy Mullins
Executive Assistant to the Chancellor, The University of Mississippi

Cappucine Torrey Robinson
Principal, Jackson

Tina Scholtes
Primary Elementary School Teacher, Starkville

Rosetta Richard
State Board of Education Chairman, Jackson

Henry Johnson
State Superintendent of Education, Mississippi Department of Education

Sallye Wilcox
Business Community Representative, Jackson

Rosemary Wolfe
Primary Elementary School Teacher, Sumner

CLEVELAND, Miss. --For Lester Fisher, it was a first, and a small sign of progress: Parents stopped him in the grocery store to talk about their children's love of books. "Our kids really don't come from a literature-rich environment," said Fisher, principal of Nailor Elementary -- considered the poorest school in this Mississippi Delta town. "Many of our children really don't have the bare necessities at home."

Nailor Elementary is one of 71 schools across the state seeing the benefits of literacy help offered by Barksdale Reading Institute, a computer mogul's ambitious program.

The institute was launched by former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, a Mississippi native well aware how the lack of reading skills contributed to the state's wrenching cycle of poverty.

Ninety-nine percent of Fisher's pupils get free or reduced lunches, and many are being raised by young, single mothers. Most do not normally see adults reading at home, and often start school with no concept of what the letters of the alphabet look or sound like.

Five years ago, Barksdale and his late wife, Sally, put up $100 million of their own money to improve "preliteracy" skills for preschoolers and reading for children in kindergarten through third grade. The Oxford-based institute they created provides books and teacher training for some of the state's neediest and lowest-performing schools.

Barksdale chose his brother, attorney Claiborne Barksdale, to run the institute, with strict instructions that he wanted results.

An independent analysis by a University of Mississippi research center recently confirmed the program was making a "statistically significant difference."

But Claiborne Barksdale acknowledged: "You have so many children come in who have not been exposed to books and words. We cannot expect schools to transform magically children who have been neglected the first five years of their lives."

Nailor Elementary turned to Barksdale Reading Institute when Fisher became principal. Since then, officials said the school's state accreditation rating has improved.

Fisher attributed it largely to an increased emphasis on reading, which includes one-on-one instruction from teachers. Using donated materials and volunteer labor from high school students, Nailor Elementary has transformed an old school bus into a reading haven, complete with bright purple and yellow curtains and shelves filled with books.

In Denise Thurman's kindergarten classroom, children can choose from Dr. Seuss titles or oversized books about the alphabet and environment. Youngsters can peruse the "reading loft" which dominates one corner of the room -- a kid-sized haven with carpeting and comfy seats.

Thurman, who's been teaching 25 years, said the Barksdale Institute has helped her and other teachers refresh skills they learned in college and has given them new tips on how to help children become better readers.

Six-year-old Calandria Jackson said her favorite book is "The Little Red Hen."

"She tells the cat and the dog and the duck that she's not going to share with them because they didn't do anything with her," Calandria explained. "They didn't help her make the bread."

Sonya Swafford, who began her teaching career 20 years ago, has vivid memories of spending her own money on books, paper and other materials for students.

"Truly, it's just unbelievable what we have here now," Swafford said.

State Education Superintendent Henry Johnson has served on the Barksdale Reading Institute's board. Johnson said when he moved to Mississippi three years ago, he had a long talk with Jim Barksdale about the private investment.

"I remember his words very clearly," Johnson said. "He said, 'I do consider this an investment and I do expect a return on my investment, and if I don't see an improvement I won't continue investing in this way.'"

Claiborne Barksdale said officials in several other states have sought donations, including California, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, Georgia, Florida, even Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The reply has been the same. For now, the money stays in Mississippi.

"I've gotten good at saying 'no,'" he said.


On the Net:

Barksdale Reading Institute: http://www.msreads.org

— Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press
Boston Globe


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