In a colorfully decorated school room located behind Mary Bethune Alternative School, a few young children look at books or play quietly with two parent educators.

Another child sits with his mother at the computer, looking at a reading skills program.

“These are children who are not in a child care facility during the day,” says Deborah Woullard, director of early literacy for the Hattiesburg Public School District. “None of these children have ever been in a structured setting.”

Woullard oversees the district’s “C-3 Literacy Initiative” which targets infants to 5-year-olds to improve their reading and learning skills before they get to kindergarten. The ultimate goal is to make sure the children are reading proficiently by the time they graduate third grade.

Woullard and other district officials go out into the community, talking to parents about the importance of helping their children to read and learn before they start kindergarten.

Woullard also tells them about the C-3 Literacy Initiative. She invites them to bring their children to the center, where she and the parent educators can help the children learn and can give the parents tips on reading to their child.

We want them to have the reading skills when they enter school so they will be successful,” said Woullard.

Mary Bolton brings her 5-year-old son, Christopher, and her 3-year-old son, Caiden, to the center.

“They have excelled more than I could hope for,” she said. “Christopher has learned how to spell his name. He knows all his colors. He has done really good.”

Bolton said she’s confident Christopher will be ready to start kindergarten in August.

“I feel so much better. I was worried,” she said. “Now, I think he’ll be right on pace, if not ahead.”

Programs like the district’s C-3 Literacy Initiative are more important than ever now that Gov. Phil Bryant has signed Senate Bill 2347 — the Literacy-Based Promotion Act. It requires school districts to hold back students who are not reading proficiently by the time they leave third grade. Any student who scores at the lowest level in reading on the state’s annual accountability test will be held back.

If the law had been in effect last year, the Hattiesburg Public School District would have had to hold back 19 percent of its third-graders.

The law takes effect in the 2014-15 school year. Before then, districts are required to provide intensive reading instruction and intervention to kindergarten through third-grade students who exhibit a substantial deficiency in reading.

Lawmakers allocated $9.5 million to fund the law.

Nancy Loome, executive director of the education advocacy group the Parents’ Campaign in Jackson, says that’s not enough.

She says when Florida lawmakers passed a similar bill in 2001, they allocated $750 million for it. A comparable amount for Mississippi would be $150 million, she said.

“Florida determined they needed to retrain all their K-3rd grade teachers — all teachers, not just reading teachers — in the most effective strategies and principals needed to make their schools reading centers,” Loome said. “The other investment they made was to put a reading coach in every school.

“These were permanent employees in the schools.”

Loome says there is just not enough money for all school districts to address reading deficiencies in their students.

“The bill requires the (Mississippi) Department of Education to focus the resources on the schools with the lowest achievement scores,” she said. “But the bill applies to all schools. Not all schools are going to have enough resources to do this well.”

Hattiesburg Public School District Superintendent James Bacchus agrees the funding is not there.

He says in order for students to read proficiently by the end of third grade, those students need to attend Pre-K and kindergarten.

“We should be fully funding Pre-K and kindergarten,” he said. “Kindergarten should also be mandatory. Mandatory kindergarten would at least give us four years to get them ready.”

The Literacy-based Promotion Act did not make kindergarten mandatory, although it does prohibit parents from taking their child out of kindergarten once they have enrolled.

Forrest County School District Superintendent Brian Freeman agrees with Bacchus that the key to reading success is to start early.

“We must focus some of our attention to early reading programs and intervene before the child reaches third grade,” he said, in an email.

But Freeman is also worried about the funding provided in the bill.

“If our intention is to follow the Florida model to success, additional funding will be needed for reading interventionists,” he said. “The money allocated will not be enough to hire these interventionists for schools throughout Mississippi.”

If the bill had been in effect last year, Forrest County would have had to hold back 18.9 percent of its third-graders.

Freeman said he is committed to following the intent of the law.

“Our district will certainly provide as strong a reading intervention program as possible,” he said. “This program will start monitoring students as soon as they enter kindergarten.

“But funding will have an impact for us. This year, our district will have approximately $350,000 less than last year from state funds. We will have to adjust our staff and not fill some open positions in order to hire reading interventionists.”

Lamar County School District Superintendent Ben Burnett says his district will do the best it can to meet the requirements of the Literacy-based Promotion Act.

“We have a lot of details to work out, but I do agree completely that in our early grades we need to ensure our students are reading on grade level,” he said. “I think the emphasis on reading and reading at an early age is the key to turning things around in our state.

If the law had been in effect last year, Lamar County would have had to hold back 11.6 percent of its third-graders.

Burnett said his district would find some way to manage any funding issues raised by the law.

“Common sense says it’s going to take some resources, because if we have to intervene with some students or if we retain a larger number of students than we normally do, it’s going to have an impact,” he said. “But we’ll deal with it.

“If we take care of literacy at an early age, our students will be more successful in middle school and high schools, and I think it will help with our dropout problem.”

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who is one of the co-authors of the bill, said those who are complaining about the funding in the measure are not being pragmatic.

“Considering that we are in a recession with no end in sight and state government continues to struggle — it’s enough,” he said. “Do I wish there was more? Perhaps, but that’s not realistic. The idea that simply throwing money at education is going to solve the problem — it’s not going to solve our problems. We are not in the position we need to be due to the national economy.”

McDaniel said the law is something that was needed in this state.

“Mississippi has to put a greater emphasis on education, not only from a state government standpoint, but from our culture as a whole,” he said. “We have to put more emphasis on helping our children to read and write.

“Right not, we’re not doing an adequate job in that arena.”

Tia Pack says thanks to the district’s C-3 Literacy Initiative she’s now doing an adequate job of helping her two children learn to read.

She brings 5-year-old Kenneth Collibee and 4-year-old Amare Collibee to the center three days a week.

“They are picking up on letters and words like ‘cat’ and ‘dog’,” she said. “They’re both able to spell their first and last name. Their progress is better and quicker than I expected.”

Pack says the strategies she’s been given at the center to help her children learn at home are making a difference in their lives and hers.

“By interacting with them you can tell their progress and what they’re lacking,” she said. “I’m helping them learn and they’re picking up on things. It makes me feel like I’m doing what I need to do as a parent.”


By Ellen Ciurczak

Source: Hattiesburg American –