Helping Mississippi Read

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The state of Mississippi, while home to generations of literary giants, ranks at or close to last of all state literacy rates and the dollar amounts spent on each pupil in its public school system. High poverty levels and a lack of funding for remediation, materials, and teacher training all contribute to the critical problem.

In 2000, the Barksdale family of Mississippi decided that the reading skills in its home state were unacceptable and became determined to improve them. A donation of $100 million by family members resulted in the founding of the Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI) in Oxford, Mississippi. The Institute has significantly improved the reading skills of children in kindergarten through third grade in 70 low-performing Mississippi public schools, as well as the pre-literacy levels of children from birth.

Claiborne Barksdale, formerly a corporate lawyer, is the CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute. In February, Barksdale addressed the ABA Board of Directors as part of the association's ongoing environmental scanning efforts to examine issues, such as literacy, that might significantly affect the book industry. BTW recently had the opportunity to talk to Barksdale about the Institute and its efforts.

The funding for the Barksdale Reading Institute came from Jim and Sally Barksdale, Claiborne's brother and sister-in-law. Jim Barksdale, the former president and chief executive officer of Netscape Communications Corporation, had formed the Technology Network, with several former business colleagues. Their new venture was designed to pool resources to help technology-oriented companies identify and retain the best talent. This led Barksdale and his wife to begin their own research on the state of education in America to see how they could best use their resources to improve education-related problems.

The Barksdale Reading Institute formed partnerships with the Mississippi Department of Education, Mississippi public schools, and the state's public universities that have led to systemic reform in the way reading is being taught to children across Mississippi, Barksdale explained.

To participate in the Barksdale Reading Institute, "schools must demonstrate a need [according to test scores] and then formally apply for the grants, and agree to implement the changes over the next four years," said Barksdale. "More than 22,000 Pre-K through third-grade children are involved in this implementation, plus several thousand children attending daycare and Head Start programs that feed into the Institute's selected schools. Over 1,100 public school teachers are involved in the implementation along with hundreds of daycare providers and Head Start teachers.

"Our primary goal is to improve literacy skills among participants so that children will leave the third grade reading fluently at grade level. To accomplish this, schools must implement appropriate assessment and reading instruction in grades K through three. The Institute is also working to increase parental involvement in the schools and strengthen the role of the principal."

After thorough assessments of the students' reading skills, the Institute provides extensive teacher training prior to and throughout the course of the year, both in school and off site. A BRI master teacher visits each school weekly. Hundreds of paid and volunteer tutors work with Pre-K through grade-three children to enhance fluency and comprehension skills. Home/school coordinators also provide four hours of tutoring per day. The Home/school coordinators supervise Parent/Family Centers that have been established at most of the BRI's schools. There, parents can check out materials designed to address specific reading problems their children are experiencing. Early childhood educators, including private and Head Start workers, receive training from BRI's staff to improve PreK children's concepts of print and phonological awareness.

As of September 2004, approximately 600,000 books had been given to the children in BRI schools as a result of BRI dollars and matching grants from Reading Is Fundamental, and the First Book program.

To learn more about the Barksdale Reading Institute, visit --Nomi Schwartz