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Fighting Illiteracy in Mississippi

Fighting Illiteracy in MississippiKids are the focus of efforts to raise literacy rates in Lafayette County
By Nicole Smith, senior journalism major, Meek School of Journalism and New Media
Mississippi has the lowest literacy rate in the nation. Around 20 percent of Mississippi adults cannot read, so in Lafayette County, the goal is to fix the problem by focusing on kids.
Most educational experts believe that for children to be strong readers, they must develop their skills when they are young. At Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford, literacy skills are considered the most important thing the school teaches.
“The students start enhancing their reading with letter sounds in kindergarten, this is their foundation,” said Phyllis Brooks. “Their foundation must be strong for them to be good readers.
The Mississippi Report Card from the No Child Left Behind Act states that, in the past four years, 58.3 percent of students in Mississippi graduated with limited English proficiency, meaning they have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English.
“If they get lost in this process, they will struggle with reading the rest of their life. We focus more on reading than any other subject with the children in K-5, first and second grade,” Brooks said.
As part of No Child Left Behind, Bramlett must administer a statewide standardized test each year to all students. This helps administrators monitor student progress from year to year. Brooks says she can see the program making a difference.
“If we see a student if falling behind, we offer tutoring through the school, and we also get them in touch with the Boys and Girls Program or the Literacy Council. The students who are involved with Boys and Girls Club, I almost see an improvement immediately because I know they are getting more one-on-one attention, and it really shows,” said Brooks.
There are many factors that can affect a child’s reading ability. Students who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds may struggle with reading because there may not be many books at home, or their parents may still struggle with reading themselves and not be able to offer the reading assistance the child needs.
“It is important that the parent pushes the child at home and most of the kids who struggle with reading just are not getting that, and that is what they need. Programs and the schools can only do so much with the time they are allotted. The parents have got to help out,” said Lamont Watkins, director of the Boys and Girls Club in Oxford, which is involved in local literacy efforts.
The Boys and Girls Club brings in community volunteers who help club members with reading. Ivy Brooks, an Oxford High School senior is one of those volunteers.
“I was fortunate to come from a family who helped me with reading every day, but most of these kids are not that lucky,” Brooks said.
Brooks said that helping out is rewarding.
“You will never have a better feeling inside as when a second grader’s face lights up because you helped him move up a reading level, or you just took the time to pay him attention. That is why I help. Every minute is worth helping those children succeed in something.”
Reading Rockets
The club hosts something called Reading Rockets, which was started by the United Way and the Lafayette County Literacy Program. The weekly lessons encourage reading comprehension and help children develop a love for literature. The program takes place four days a week.
“I can tell a huge improvement from when the kids started the program a few months ago to where they are now,” Watkins said. “They come in after school every day and want to read first, and usually they would have tried to avoid reading at all costs. I can tell in each student that the program is improving their reading skills.”
Meridith Wulff, director of the Lafayette County Literacy Council, said they want to see the program grow and reach more students.
“The gap between our highest and lowest reading levels continues to expand. We hope by enabling these students to succeed in reading, we will in turn give them skills the need to succeed in the rest of their lives and to avoid criminal or disruptive behavior,” Wulff said.
The program targets the lowest-performing second graders or repeating first graders. The elementary schools in Oxford work with the Boys and Girls Club and the Literacy Council and notify them of students who are in need of help with their reading. The goal is to help the at-risk students reach reading proficiency by third grade.
As the success of the program grows, so does the need for volunteers.
“We can match a volunteer’s interests with a job that needs doing,” Wulff said.
High school students and adults are welcome to call The Boys and Girls Club at 662-832-0602, or the Lafayette County Literacy Program at 662-234-4234.

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